Category: Alumni

Alumni Accomplishments

Congratulations to these College of Ed alums!

Mary P. Haynes

Mary P. Haynes

The NIU Alumni Association honored two College of Education graduates as part of the 2017 Alumni Awards.

Mary P. Haynes, an academic success coach at the College of Lake County, received the Outstanding Young Alumni Award. Ann E. Rondeau, president of the College of DuPage, was the college’s honoree in recognition of her outstanding professional accomplishments and civic, cultural and charitable involvement.

Haynes, M.S.Ed. Adult and Higher Education, ’14, worked as an academic adviser at Waubonsee Community College before joining the College of Lake County two years ago.

She has a reputation for making a positive impact on the more than 500 students enrolled in developmental education classes, and works closely with 20 faculty members to receive early alert notifications, follows up with student concerns and provides proactive, hands-on support for 300 students in her caseload.

Ann E. Rondeau

Ann E. Rondeau

Rondeau, Ed.D., Adult and Higher Education, ’10, became the sixth president of the College of DuPage in July 2016. She is a past president of the National Defense University, a consortium of five colleges and nine research centers in Washington, D.C.

After her 2012 retirement from the U.S. Navy as a three-star admiral – she is the second woman to achieve this rank – Rondeau brought with her to civilian life extensive leadership experience that included serving as commander of the Naval Service Training Command in Great Lakes, Ill.

Jason Bednar

Jason Bednar

Jason Bednar, M.S.Ed., Educational Administration, ’04, and Ed.S., Educational Administration, ’16, begins a new job July 1 as principal of Field Elementary School in Park Ridge-Niles District 64. Bednar is currently principal of Brook Forest Elementary School in Oak Brook. He previously has served as director of elementary core curriculum and instruction at Indian Prairie District 204 in Naperville and as principal of Owen Elementary School. Bednar continues to pursue his Ed.D. in Educational Administration from NIU.

Heather A. Brown

Heather A. Brown

Heather A. Brown, Ed.D., Adult and Higher Education, ’12, was elected in March as director of Membership & Outreach for the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association. Brown is executive director of the Women + Girls Research Alliance at University of North Carolina-Charlotte. Her research focuses on the intersections between weight and learning in women as well as on the ethics and practice of research with stigmatized populations. She also is the co-editor of the Journal of Research and Practice for Adult Literacy, Secondary, and Basic Education.

Lauri Haugen

Lauri Haugen

Lauri Haugen, M.S.Ed., Reading, ’96, will start a new job this fall as principal of Fabyan Elementary School in Genvea CUSD 304. Haugen, who began her career as an elementary school teacher, also has worked as a literacy specialist and reading specialist in the Kaneland and West Aurora school districts. She joined District 304 two years ago to serve as the student assistance coordinator at Harrison Street Elementary School.

Ken King

Ken King

Kenneth P. King, M.S.Ed., Curriculum and Supervision, ’90, and Ed.D. Curriculum and Instruction, ’98, received a 2017 Silver Buffalo Award from the Boy Scouts of America. Created in 1925, the Silver Buffalo Award for distinguished service to youth is Scouting’s highest commendation. King, an Eagle Scout, has developed outreach materials that educate school board members and elementary, middle and high school teachers and principals on the value of the Scouting experience. He is a professor of Elementary Education at Roosevelt University.

If you’re a COE grad with news to share, please let us know – and send a photo! Our email address is ceduednews@niu.edu.



KNPE alumna visits alma mater with 266 middle-schoolers eager for reward of physical activity

knpe-crms-7

NIU graduate student Sarah Paver (right) explains
the rules of the game to Clinton Rosette students.

Katelyn Neidel wishes her daily P.E. class at DeKalb’s Clinton Rosette Middle School would last longer than 45 minutes.

That wish came true for Neidel and 265 of her classmates April 21 as they spent five hours at Anderson Hall banging drumsticks, shooting arrows at balloons, practicing martial arts, line-dancing, playing disability sports, testing fitness levels, trying their hand at yoga and parkour and even developing empathy skills.

“Just a second ago, we were in wheelchairs, which was kind of scary – but the basketball part made it cooler,” said eighth-grader Neidel, 14. “I think this is really fun. We’re getting to try a lot of cool activities.”

“We also ran agility courses to see how high we can jump, how fast we can run – and we’re competing against our friends,” added Ella Boyer, 13, also in eighth-grade. “It’s cool to see what you can do.”

So-Yeun Kim, associate professor Adapted Physical Activity in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education, coordinated this year’s Clinton Rosette visit. The annual field trip began five or six years ago, Professor Paul Wright said.

About three dozen KNPE faculty members and students volunteered to run the 10 stations.

knpe-crms-3“NIU has a professional development school relationship with Clinton Rosette. Our students do secondary clinicals and teaching at the school,” said Kim, who likes watching the “action and excitement” between professors, college students and middle-schoolers.

Clinton Rosette students also enjoy an aspirational opportunity to visit the NIU campus, explore one of its buildings and interact with college students, she added, while they participate in some physical activities outside of the typical middle school curriculum.

For Jen Montavon, a P.E. teacher at Clinton Rosette, the annual trip allows her to dangle a carrot in front of her students. They must earn their places by being dressed and on time for class each day, following directions and participating in at least 80 percent of activities.

“It gets our kids out of the building, and it gives them some incentive. These are the kids who made it all year long,” said Montavon, who earned her NIU bachelor’s degree in Physical Education in 1996 and completed a master’s in Adapted Physical Education here in 2008.

Bringing “the best of the best” also allows those students to focus on physical activities and fun rather than waiting while the teachers discipline less-behaved students, she added. Some of the children who come to Anderson Hall are quiet by nature, she said, and maybe missing out.

“It’s good to see those kids come here and shine in a different light,” Montavon said “and this is a P.E. teacher’s dream. The kids are all here doing different activities and having fun. How many kids are going to sit in a wheelchair and play basketball? To have these opportunities is amazing, and I’m really grateful to the KNPE department.”

Montavon also is a bit envious of the current KNPE students.

“We didn’t do this when I went through the program, but I wish I could have,” she said. “It’s really kind of a good step for them. In teacher preparation, they’re usually teaching their peers. Now they’re working with middle-schoolers who are the best of the best. It’s a good stepping stone.”

knpe-crms-9Kelsey Flicek, a freshman Physical Education major from McHenry, agrees.

“This is awesome,” Flicek said, taking a quick break from KNPE instructor Gail Koehling’s “drum fitness” activity. “I love how all of the kids get to be a part of our program, and it’s fun to interact with the kids. It helps you to get a lot of experience with students, to interact with them at different levels and realize that every student is different.”

Sean Carpen, a junior P.E. major, volunteered to earn extra credit. Within an hour, however, he no longer cared about boosting his grade.

“It’s a great experience for the kids, and it’s a great experience for us in learning how to teach the kids and assist them,” said Carpen, who spent his day at the archery activity. “This is hands-on experience. This allows you to connect. It gives you practice. I just love working with the kids.”

Carpen, who was motivated to pursue career thanks to an excellent P.E. teacher in high school, also found affirmation of his abilities. Before April 21, the native of Oak Lawn had never instructed anyone in the bow-and-arrow.

“This is great for me,” he said, “because now I know I can teach it.”



Alumni Accomplishments

Anwer Al-Zahrani

Anwer Al-Zahrani

Congratulations to these College of Ed alums!

Anwer Al-Zahrani, Ed.D. Instructional Technology, ’15, was in October named deputy for Curriculum and Quality Assurance at Jubail Industrial College.

John R. Almond, B.S. ’68, M.S.Ed. ’75, and Anita J. Almond, ’68, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary Dec. 31. The couple was married Dec. 31, 1966, at Immanuel Lutheran Church in DeKalb. They raised two sons and are now both retired, John from a teaching career and Anita from a computer consulting career.

Colette Yeiser Boyd, B.A. ’71, M.S.Ed. ’74, was elected to the Oliver Wolcott Library Board of Trustees in Litchfield, Conn.

P.J. Fleck

P.J. Fleck

P.J. Fleck, B.S. Ed. ’04, Elementary Education, was named Jan. 6 as head coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers football team. Fleck’s new job comes on the heels of a triumphant career at Western Michigan University, where he led the Broncos to a 2016 Mid-American Conference championship and a berth in the Jan. 2 Cotton Bowl.

Mark L. Goldstein, M.S.Ed.’72, a clinical and forensic psychologist, was editor of Handbook of Child Custody, published by Springer Scientific.  He was previously co-editor of Handbook of Forensic Sociology and Psychology, also published by Springer Scientific in 2013. Dr. Goldstein has served as an expert witness in more than 1,200 forensic cases in 12 states. He maintains a forensic and clinical practice in the Chicago area, and has served on the graduate faculty of several universities.

Jan S. Half, M.S.Ed. ’80, of San Mateo, Calif., received the 2016 Silicon Valley Women of Influence Award, honoring women in leadership roles who have influenced their industries as well as their communities. Half recently retired from a career that included working as a middle-school teacher; selling technology products and services; acting as a regional technology director for the California Department of Education; and directing a student technology nonprofit.

Odin Jurkowski

Odin Jurkowski

Odin Jurkowski, Ed.D. Instructional Technology, ’03, has been appointed associate dean of Graduate Studies for the College of Education at the University of Central Missouri.

Adam Kimble, M.S. Sport Management, ’12, is a “survivalist” on the Discovery Channel’s new reality show, “The Wheel.” The program, which premiered Jan. 13, “dares six participants to survive in six distinctly grueling landscapes across South America. With every turn of the wheel, each survivalist is dropped into a new isolated location, exposed to the world’s deadliest terrains including freezing tundra, rugged mountains and treacherous rainforest.” Kimble, an ultra-runner, made headlines last year when he crossed the United States on foot in 60 days.

Sara Christiansen Knigge, B.S. Ed. ’94, has co-authored a Spanish reading workbook for bilingual and dual language classrooms through her company, READ en Espanol, Inc. She offers consulting to school districts with large Spanish-speaking populations.

Melinda Tejada

Melinda Tejada

Melinda Tejada, Ed.D. Curriculum Leadership, ’13, was honored in November by the Business Ledger’s 19th annual Influential Women in Business awards program. Tejada is vice president of Student Development at Waubonsee Community College, where she provides leadership and oversight for services such as Admissions, Athletics, Financial Aid, Student Life, the Access Center for Disability Resources, Career Development, Learning Assessment and Testing Services, Student Support Services, Upward Bound and more.

Betty Trummel, M.S.Ed. ’91, is one of 78 women worldwide selected to participate in a Homeward Bound expedition, an elite science leadership expedition to Antarctica.

Dan Verdun, M.S.Ed. ’96, and Barry Bottino created a Chicago Now blog, Prairie State Pigskin, to share news on Division I college football programs in Illinois.

Maria Walther

Maria Walther

Maria Walther, B.S. Ed. ’86, M.S. Ed. ’93 and Ed.D. ’98, has received the Illinois Reading Council’s 2016 Hall of Fame Award. Walther, whose doctorate is in elementary education, has taught first-grade since 1986. She currently teaches in Indian Prairie District 204. According to IRC Past President Cindy Gerwin, Walther’s “passion for reading and writing will affect generations of readers and writers in her community, throughout the state of Illinois, across the country and internationally.”

If you’re a COE grad with news to share, please let us know – and send a photo! Our email address is ceduednews@niu.edu.



Woof! ETRA prof Tom Smith barks up the global media tree

Tom Smith and Rex

Tom Smith and Rex

For Tom Smith, the days before the winter break proved crazy-busy hectic.

And it had nothing to do with the holidays.

It was head-spinning, to tell you the truth,” says Smith, a co-author on a study that scored international headlines for its information on whether stress can make dogs go gray.

“I actually had a news alert set up on Google, and it kept popping up on there – CBS News, Huffington Post, Yahoo!, Scientific American, People magazine, Wired.com, CNN, hundreds of news outlets in the U.S., U.K, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East,” he adds. “The news anchors even talked about it on ‘Good Morning America,’ and BBC-TV contacted us.”

The professor in the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment, who gave numerous interviews with reporters in December, became involved in the project thanks to College of Education alumna Camille King (Ed.D. in adult education, 2011). She’s a nurse and animal behaviorist.

“Camille was a student of mine, and I was on her dissertation committee, too. She did her dissertation research on therapy dogs under Gene Roth’s guidance,” Smith says. “Camille had moved to Colorado, and then she contacted me to ask if I would help her on research she was planning to do on pressure wraps – also known as Thundershirts® – and how they affect anxiety and heart rates in dogs. Temple Grandin was involved, too. I said, yeah, I’d be interested.”

King, Smith and Grandin eventually published that study in a top veterinary journal, Smith says. That validation prompted his former student to begin the latest project on whether anxiety and impulsiveness in dogs is related to graying of their muzzles, and to again seek her professor’s help with the methodological, statistical and data analysis components.

puppiesNow, as much of the world knows, the answer is yes: Young dogs that are anxious or given to impulsivity tend to develop gray muzzles.

Smith admits he was surprised by the finding, quickly adding that King was not.

“I was a little skeptical that stress would be related to the gray muzzle in dogs, and young dogs especially,” he says. “I didn’t express that to Camille at the time, but that’s sort of how I felt. However, when we analyzed the data, the results actually were striking. Both anxiety and impulsivity were clearly and markedly related to gray muzzles.”

Global interest in that revelation, however, came as no shock.

“People love dogs,” he says, “and we’re hoping that the study draws some attention to dog welfare. Dog anxiety can be a real issue. It can cause health problems and shorter life spans, and it can affect quality of life. We’re hoping people will learn to recognize it and say, ‘Maybe my dog is anxious. Maybe I should talk to a vet about this.’ ”

Rex – one of Smith’s two dogs – fits the description. He’s a young Pomeranian/Chihuahua mix sporting a premature gray muzzle, likely due, at least in part, to the stress of being chased around and bitten on the leg by Smith’s other dog.

mission“Before I knew about this, I would have said that I didn’t think Rex is stressed, but that I also didn’t know why he developed a gray muzzle. I thought my dogs were just playing, but when I described their behavior, Camille told me that my other dog is bullying him,” Smith says. “Rex was under quite a bit of stress!”

With the media spotlight faded, Smith is now able to call the experience with King, Grandin and animal behaviorist Peter Borchelt a “fun” one.

“My background is not at all in dog research. I don’t have a biology background. That being said, I did learn a lot about dogs and animal behavior,” Smith says. “I was also really fortunate to get to work with people like this. They’re really creative thinkers as well as excellent, first-rate researchers. We’ve already planned several additional dog-related research projects, so we’ll be busy!”



63 years later, Korean War veteran finally receives education diploma

(This story originally appeared on the NIU Newsroom)

The life Robert Roy “Gus” Trantham launched here at Northern in 1949 has taken him around the world –  from serving in the Korean War as a U.S. Navy lieutenant, to conducting business in China, to raising four children in suburban Glen Ellyn. His journey came full circle when he returned to NIU Saturday to pick up the diploma he earned 63 years ago.

“Sometimes you feel like you didn’t do it if you weren’t there,” said Trantham, 85.

But he was there Saturday. With his service dog Henri, his grandson U.S. Navy Captain Michael Guare by his side, over 25 family, and the entire Convocation Center cheering him on, Trantham accepted his diploma from NIU President Doug Baker at the College of Education Commencement.

Diploma in hand, Trantham said: “This was the best day ever!”

Check out some of the coverage of Gus’ big day:



Panel discussion to address tough issues facing local schools, teachers and students

Douglas Moeller, Steven Koch, Erika Schlichter

The NIU College of Education’s ongoing Community Learning Series continues Thursday, Oct. 22 when the college welcomes back three distinguished alumni to share their experiences as educators and school administrators and provide insights into what it takes to be successful in today’s classrooms.

The guests will also provide an “on-the-ground” look at some of the pressing issues facing local schools and school districts, including the impact of the Illinois budget crisis, Common Core and student testing.

Dr. Brad Hawk, assistant professor in the COE’s Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Leadership as well as a former school superintendent himself, will moderate the panel, which includes:

  • Douglas Moeller, superintendent, DeKalb School District 428
  • Erika Schlichter, chief academic officer, District 158
  • Steven Koch, principal, Prairie Ridge High School

“All of our guests have been highly successful teachers who have moved up through the system, through a variety of jobs at a variety of districts,” Hawk said. “Their comments will be valuable to anyone seeking a career as a teacher but also for teachers – prospective or veteran – who are interested in taking on administrative roles.”

The discussion will also appeal to parents and others who are interested in critical issues facing local schools and districts.

“The chance to talk with such highly placed and influential leaders in education will give us a clear view into what’s really happening in our schools,” he said.

“Dr. Moeller, for example, will discuss financial issues that are now affecting local districts here and around the state,” he said, adding that Schlichter is an expert on Common Core standards and high-stakes testing, while Koch’s Prairie Ridge High School has become the model for student performance in recent years. The discussion will include an extensive question and answer session.

What: Community Learning Series: Leadership in the Classroom

Where: Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center, 231 N. Annie Glidden Road, DeKalb, IL

Date: Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015

Time: 5 p.m. – 6 p.m.: Networking reception with light hors d’oeuvres; 6 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.: Panel discussion and Q&A

The event is free and open to the public. Free parking is available for all attendees in the lot adjacent to the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center. Please RSVP to Paul Baker at pbaker@niu.edu or 815-753-8434.

 

Meet our distinguished panelists:

Dr. Steven Koch joined District 155 in 2001 as a Prairie Ridge English teacher. He served as English department chairman from 2005 until 2008, when he assumed his role as the district’s director of staff development. He returned to Prairie Ridge as the school’s fourth principal in July 2013. Dr. Koch received both a B.A. degree in secondary English education with a minor in rhetoric and a M.A. degree in English literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has both an Educational Specialist degree and a Type 75 certification from Northern Illinois University. Koch earned his Ed.D. degree from NIU for his work concentrating on public school officials’ authority over student cyberspeech. Koch’s wife, Katie, is a member of the District 155 math faculty, and together they have three children.

Dr. Douglas J. Moeller is the superintendent of schools for DeKalb Community Unit School District (CUSD) 428. The day after graduating from Elgin High School, in Elgin Ill., he left home to begin six years of service in the United States Marine Corps. Upon completing his military service, Dr. Moeller attended Northern Illinois University and earned a B.S. degree in mathematics and economics. He immediately found employment as a corporate actuary, and spent nine years working for both Kemper Corporation and Allstate Insurance Company’s International Reinsurance Division. Although this profession was monetarily rewarding, it was not personally fulfilling. His wife, Christine, was an elementary school teacher, and seeing the positive impact she was having on the lives of children, Dr. Moeller made a career change to teach.

He began his career in education as a mathematics teacher at Gifford Street High School, an alternative high school located in Elgin School District U-46. During this time, Dr. Moeller also worked as an adjunct instructor for Elgin Community College teaching Calculus, Differential Equations, and Probability & Statistics. He then served as a dean of students and chair of the special education department at Elgin High School. His last position in U-46 was as the school district’s director for mathematics and science.

Dr. Moeller joined DeKalb CUSD 428 in 2009 as the principal of DeKalb High School. While serving in this position he worked on the construction of, and opened, the new DeKalb High School in the fall of 2011. Before assuming his current position, Dr. Moeller was the assistant superintendent for curriculum and student services in DeKalb. He holds a Ph.D. degree in educational organization and leadership from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Now in her 19th year as an educator, Dr. Erika Schlichter is beginning her second year as the chief academic officer for Huntley Community School District 158, a large unit district in McHenry County. In this role she collaborates to provide leadership in all aspects of teaching and learning for the district. She comes to this position having served in curriculum leadership, human resources leadership, high school building administration, and high school teaching roles in several large unit districts in the greater Chicago area.

Dr. Schlichter is a graduate of NIU and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After receiving a B.A. degree in history and Spanish from UW-Madison, she went on to a career in education and simultaneously pursued graduate work at NIU. She holds multiple degrees from NIU, including an M.S.Ed. degree in curriculum and instruction-secondary education, an M.S.Ed. degree in education administration, and an Ed.D. degree in education administration.



Alumni profile: Meet Mina Blazy

mina-blazy

Mina Blazy

If you had asked Mina Blazy if she aspired to be a teacher back while she was a student at Proviso East High School, she would have told you “no.”

But the fond memories of a 10th grade chemistry teacher at that high school continue to inspire her hands-on approach to teaching – teaching science especially — today.
“You’d go by his class and he’d be lighting something on fire,” she said. “We made candy from a chemical equation in his class. I had the most fun in that classroom. He made science come alive.”

When that teacher retired and learned that Blazy (B.S. Ed. Elementary Education ’99) was teaching, he sent her all of his lessons.

Earlier this year Blazy opened the Gus Franklin Jr. STEM Academy, in Victorville, Calif., where she is currently principal.

“The academy is a huge success,” she said of its launch. “We have students from kindergarten through sixth grade learning and exploring engineering concepts through project-based learning.”

Blazy’s passion for teaching and learning through science is infused into every aspect of the school. Her students are learning about flight in space in third grade, and how to use software in fifth and sixth grades, plus the elementary school has engineering and science labs. This year, the school will launch a new project where students will manipulate a radio telescope as part of the Goldstone Apple Valley Radio Telescope (GAVRT) Program. The project is a partnership between the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Lewis Center for Educational Research. In addition, they will look at space for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The data they study will be part of the Juno Project, which is named for a satellite that was launched towards Jupiter and will go live next summer.

“It’s another hands-on science project, where they will get to manipulate it from the school site,” she said.

Blazy’s path to becoming a classroom innovator didn’t happen overnight. After growing up in Broadview, Ill., she attended the University of Dubuque and learned to be a pilot.

“I flew planes for a while, got married, had kids, and just decided to go into education,” she said. “My husband was actually the one who pointed out to me that I had a natural ability to teach.”

Blazy’s mother – a registered nurse – and uncle had attended NIU, so she applied. A counselor told her that she should focus on teaching science or math, so she minored in biology.

After graduation, she taught high school science in the Chicago suburbs for a few years, before moving to Ohio and then California to continue her career. Soon, Blazy will begin pursuing her doctoral degree in STEM education.

“Science helps you think about your thinking,” she said. “That’s why I decided I wanted to focus on STEM.”

Throughout her career, Blazy said she has worked with and observed educators at all skill levels.

“What I have learned is that NIU gave me a true foundation in the education arena, and the necessary skills to help guide teachers to become extremely successful,” she said.



Marian Cheatham – COE Alumni Story

embedMarian Cheatham (B.S. Ed. ’77) might not exist today were it not for an ancestor’s premonition — and avoidance — of the very disaster that launched Cheatham’s career.

Cheatham is a full-time writer of contemporary and historical young adult fiction. Her debut young adult novel, “Eastland,” is based on the real story of the 1915 Eastland boating disaster that claimed the lives of 844 people in Chicago.  As a child, Cheatham learned that her grandmother was somehow linked to the deadly shipwreck, but it wasn’t until she had started her writing career that she learned her grandmother was supposed to be on the ship that day. She had given up her ticket at the urging of her mother, however, who had an ominous feeling about the trip.

Cheatham now lectures about the Eastland disaster to schools, libraries and book clubs, and writes a post on the subject on the Chicago Tribune’s “Chicago Now” blog site. The ill-fated ship’s story became especially prominent this year when a recent NIU graduate discovered chilling original newsreels of the disaster, just in time for its 100th anniversary this summer.

Born and raised in the Chicago area, Cheatham attended NIU, where she pursued a degree in special education.

“I LOVED my time at NIU,” she said. “My friends and family used to say that I should have been the poster child for Northern. I loved everything about college life — the stimulating learning environment, the beautiful campus, the cheese-smothered burgers and fries in the cafeteria. It was all good.”

Cheatham lived in Lincoln Hall for her first two years, and then moved to University Plaza for her remaining two years at NIU.  After graduation, she returned to DeKalb and lived in a one-bedroom apartment off of Annie Glidden while working as a graduate research assistant for the head of the Department of Special Education.

Her undergraduate education was funded by a summer job at the M&M Mars Candy Company in Oak Park, Ill.

“The money we saved making Three Musketeers and Snickers paid for a full year of room, board and tuition,” she said. “It was a sweet job. No pun intended.”

smallCheatham was especially impressed through her involvement in the NIU Honors Program.

“Each semester, I was required to take an Honors class, in additional to my regular course load of 12 to 15 hours,” she explained. “This made for some heavy semesters, but the Honors classes were always the highlight of my year, especially the Greek mythology classes. I lived for them. The professor was one of the most engaging, enthralling people I’ve ever met. To this day, when I think of his lectures, I still smile.”

A trained educator, her eventual writing career may come as a surprise to some of her former professors:

“As for writing, well, I had a terrible time in my literature classes,” she confessed. “I loved reading, but writing papers was not my forte. I had one English Lit professor who told me my writing was so boring, it put him to sleep. Yikes!”

Cheatham said she became a writer anyway, “because I learned from my mistakes.”

After graduation, Cheatham taught special education at the primary level for several years before spending a few more years working in a family business with her father and siblings.

“I eventually left the business world to pursue a career in writing, but I remembered what that NIU professor told me,” she said. “So, I read every ‘how to’ book on the subject, joined a professional organization, attended workshops, conferences, book signings, author lectures, anything and everything to do with the art of writing. And then, I just put my butt in a chair and wrote, wrote, and rewrote until I thought (fingers crossed), I got something right.”

Cheatham recently took some time away from planning the 100th anniversary remembrances of the Eastland Disaster to share about her experiences at NIU. Read on for the full interview:

How did you first become interested in the Eastland Disaster, and how did that lead to your involvement today?

At family dinners as a child, my father and aunts and uncles would often talk about this big ship that had capsized in the Chicago River killing hundreds of people. My paternal grandmother, Grandma Manseau, apparently had some part in this disaster, but I never really understood the magnitude of the tragedy until I grew up. Only then, as a 40-something newbie writer looking for intriguing stories to write, did I discover what all the animated dinner conversation had been about.

From my first day of serious research into the Eastland, I was hooked on the story. Unfortunately for me, my father had already passed, but I was able to learn more about our family’s Eastland connection from my aunt. She told me that Grandma Manseau had a ticket for the July 24, 1915, Western Electric employee picnic. Western Electric Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Ill., had leased six steamships that would depart from the Chicago River and ferry the 7,000 picnickers to Washington Park in Michigan City, Ind. My grandmother did not work for Western Electric, but was going with a girlfriend who was a Hawthorne Works employee.

However, on the night before the big excursion, my great grandmother had a premonition of danger and death and begged my then 28-year-old grandmother not to go on this picnic with her girlfriend. Great-Grandma Savageau’s premonition must have been terrifying because my grandmother conceded and remained safely at home.

Of course, Great-Grandma Savageau had been correct. Something deadly did occur that Saturday morning, July 24, 1915. My grandmother’s decision to forego the picnic had saved her life — and mine. When the realization of that prophetic premonition sank in, I knew I had to write this story.

To you, what is the significance of the clips recently discovered by another NIU alumnus regarding the Eastland?

In my opinion, the significance is huge. It proves that the Eastland story was big news all across the globe. The foreign press in Chicago that day must have rushed to the disaster site to film as soon as word broke. The scenes in the clips are of rescue efforts only hours after the capsizing. Of course, in Chicago the news was unimaginable and devastating. But news of the Eastland had repercussions worldwide. Many of the Western Electric employees at that time were “Bohemian” from pre-WWI countries of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Russian, et cetera. Some employees were working here to support family back in the Old Country. Losing that support meant not only suffering emotionally from an Eastland death, but also facing financial hardship.

On a more personal level, watching those film clips made the stories I’d only read about seem more real. Several times, I was moved to tears thinking of those victims being fished from the Chicago River or pulled from within the bowels of the ship. I knew those victims’ names. I’d met family members, visited Eastland graves, but now, it was as though I were watching the scene play out live. Those clips had an eerie 9/11 déjà vu feeling about them — haunting and unforgettable.

What is planned for the 100th anniversary?

The Eastland Disaster Historical Society of Arlington Heights, Ill., the official host of the 100th Anniversary Commemoration Weekend, has been planning for this occasion for decades, and they have many educational and emotional ceremonies planned over the course of a three-day weekend beginning Friday, July 24. (For a schedule of events and details on how to order tickets, visit the organization’s website.)

What can we learn from this disaster?

Urban legends regarding the cause of the Eastland tragedy have circulated around the country for a century – everything from passengers rushing to the riverside of the ship, to the wild story that the tugboat Kenosha pulled the Eastland over. But the sad reality of the matter is that human greed, hubris, and poor judgment caused the disaster.

On the morning of July 24, 1915, a series of events occurred in catastrophic succession, resulting in the greatest loss-of-life disaster in the history of Chicago and the Great Lakes. The news shook the world, but did anything change? Chicago initiated stability testing on passenger steamships after the disaster. Passenger capacity licensing came under stricter government controls. The entire steamship industry went into a steady decline after the Eastland, but that may have had more to do with war and the economy than fear over public safety.

There was an outcry for justice, but no one was ever found guilty. The 844 victims never received a penny in compensation from the owners, and although Western Electric Hawthorne Works suffered greatly over the loss of nearly 500 employees, the company eventually went on to become an American icon. Sadly, in hindsight, nothing seemed to have changed. The Eastland was a sensationalized story that sold millions of newspapers, but as for the survivors and the families of the victims, life went on.

Why do you work so hard to preserve the memory of this event?

I fight hard to keep the story alive because I see the victims as people — real-life human beings who struggled to make a life for their families in the booming metropolis of 1915 Chicago. So many victims were first- or second-generation Americans. They, themselves, had come here or their parents had emigrated here from Europe to forge the American dream. After reading about so many of them, learning their stories, meeting their ancestors, walking their neighborhoods, and visiting the Western Electric museum to learn about their workplace and the products they produced, I feel for these people. They are alive in my mind and my heart. That is why I can’t stop telling their stories. They deserve to be remembered.

What advice do you offer to current students and alumni about building a career?

As Oprah often says, follow your bliss. I’m a firm believer in that philosophy, but I caution that warm, fuzzy sentiment with a cold slice of reality. You may be the best novelist of your generation, but writing a novel can take years. Who’s going pay your bills until your brilliant book debuts? If you don’t want to live in your parents’ basement till your Social Security kicks in, then you have to have a paying day job.

That doesn’t mean you can’t work in your chosen field. If you’re the creative type, you can go into advertising or editing or teach dance classes. Work to pay the bills but save your free time to pursue your artistic dreams. Network to build contacts, take classes to improve your craft, join a critique group of like-minded souls for emotional support, attend workshops and conferences. In other words, nourish and nurture your dreams, and you will be a success.

Learn more about Marian Cheatham at:

www.chicagonow.com/everyday-eastland/

www.facebook.com/mariancheatham.author

www.amazon.com/Ruined-Stratford-High-Marian-Cheatham/dp/1500335444

http://www.niutoday.info/2015/02/26/recent-niu-graduate-uncovers-film-of-eastland