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Looking back at the past decade on campus

Barry McNamara
12/05/2019
In 2012, I had the pleasure of giving my son, Sean McNamara '12, his Monmouth diploma, while his grandfather, Emeritus Professor of English Jeremy McNamara, looked on.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – As 2009 wound down, I wrote a “Last Word” column for Monmouth College Magazine, reflecting on the past decade, which also happened to be my first 10 years as a writer for the College.

Here we are, 10 years later, with “The ’Teens” almost over, so it seems like a good time to repeat the exercise. This time around, I’ve divided the column into three sections, the first of which I’ll call:

Top five events


Day in and day out throughout its history, Monmouth College has provided a quality education, making a difference in the lives of its students. All of us who work here and teach here know that to be true, but there are still special days when the College gets a major “win.”

One of the wins that happened during the decade was the anonymous $20 million gift the College received in 2017, by far the largest gift in the College’s history. Another has been a big jump in the national rankings, especially in Washington Monthly, where Monmouth has soared more than 100 spots from 2014 to be ranked in the top 100 among liberal arts colleges.

Not coincidentally, another of the decade’s major events was the inauguration of Dr. Clarence R. Wyatt as Monmouth’s 14th president. He began his duties on July 1, 2014.

The year prior saw the opening of the $42 million Center for Science and Business. Although lots of the project’s dirt and dust wound up on the dashboard of my old green Impala, the beautiful finished product has been well worth the two years of construction.

As “The ’Teens” end, the College is positioning itself well for the ’20s, ’30s and beyond with the Light This Candle campaign, which is well on its way toward reaching its $75 million goal by the end of 2022.

Top five stories

This category is for stories I especially remember writing during the decade. I’m trying not to have recency bias, but I truly enjoyed sitting down with Peter Pitts last spring to recap his four decades in admissions, most of that time at Monmouth. Peter was full of humorous and heartwarming stories, and he also provided more anecdotes in a 150-page manuscript that he might turn into a book.

I have to include Ira Smolensky here, first for the piece he agreed to have written when he retired from teaching in 2017 and then for the sad but glowing tribute he received following his death the next year. Ira spoke to me about loving baseball, disliking committees and, most of all, about his love for teaching at Monmouth College.

“If I had to sacrifice this career to be a major leaguer, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I’d rather have this life.”

Another person I had the privilege of interviewing was Country Countdown USA host Lon Helton ’72, whose pursuit of his radio “hobby” won out – spectacularly – over a more traditional path.

This is an age of short attention spans, but I must confess that I’m a “longform” guy – I like writing longer articles, and I like reading them. Two of my favorite longform stories from the decade were interviewing several members of the Class of 1968 about their tumultuous senior year, and a piece I did earlier in the decade, interviewing Monmouth science faculty about what life might be like in 2100 (still hoping for that space elevator, Ashwani!).

“We learned how resilient we are as a nation,” said former Virginia legislator Bob Brink ’68 in the final paragraph of the 1968 story. “We’re so polarized now, and people say it’s a dark time. But I am confident and comfortable that we’ll come out of it OK in the long term.”

A lot of emotions came out in that story, and I remember two other interviews with similar moments, when my subjects got a little choked up recalling the special relationships they formed at Monmouth. Those interviews were with retiring athletics secretary Kathy Haas and Craig Anderson ’90, executive director of the Illinois High School Association.

Top five memories

This is the all-the-feels section, with five of the moments that really moved me in “The ’Teens.”

For sheer bleacher-shaking, deafening-decibel electric excitement, Paul Engo III’s steal and contested throwdown dunk in the Fighting Scots’ come-from-behind victory in the 2018 Midwest Conference semifinal is hard to beat. There were lots of goosebumps and feel-good moments in packed Glennie Gym throughout that weekend, but that one brought the house down.

Unfortunately, I missed out on two other exciting Scots moments from Midwest Conference championship games this fall that would have qualified – the TD pass against St. Norbert that completed “The Drive” and the save that ended the penalty-kick shootout vs. Knox in the women’s soccer final.

But I do have a vivid recollection of another big PK save from nine years earlier. Several of the women’s soccer teams I coached had very special on-field moments. But if I had to pick just one, it would be the last-minute saves that Samantha Barranco ’14 made to preserve a 1-0 victory for us in a win-or-go-home game at Lake Forest in 2010. Just a freshman, she saved a penalty kick and then survived a goalmouth swarm of nearly all 22 players on the ensuing corner kick. Seconds later, as the clock hit 0:00, it was all of her Scots’ teammates doing the swarming, as we sprinted 50 yards to celebrate with her on the field.

Samantha was a four-time first-team All-MWC player. The other women’s soccer player who can claim that honor is Amy Horneck ’06. As someone who’s enjoyed his behind-the-scenes role with the M Club Hall of Fame, it was a very special privilege for me to be up front at the podium to introduce Amy for induction into the hall in 2016.

Four years earlier, I had another special privilege – being on stage when my son, Sean McNamara ’12, received his Monmouth College diploma. The moment was made even more special by his grandfather joining him on stage, as well, and in his full academic regalia – my dad, Emeritus Professor of English Jeremy McNamara, who is still a regular presence with his walks around campus and visits to Hewes Library.

I’ll close this section and this column with a memory that I think capsulizes why working at Monmouth College is such a privilege and joy. In 2015, I covered a Whiteman Lecture by Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist John Mather. His talk, titled “The History of the Universe: How We Got Here and Where We Are Going,” was as phenomenal as it sounds, but the most memorable part for me was driving Mather to the Quad City International Airport in Moline. For 45 minutes, we had a great conversation about subjects ranging from solar flares to faith. He was also happy to see a sign along Highway 67 for Matherville.

And I was happy to have that opportunity – one of countless ones I’ve had at Monmouth to listen to captivating speakers and meet fascinating faculty, staff, students and alumni. My vision for the 2020s is that there’ll be many such opportunities to come.