Educator gets joy from impact her scholarships make

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Ethel McConnell is lifting young people’s aspirations sky-high – and fully enjoying the euphoria giving brings.

Ethel funds a pair of scholarships through the Starved Rock Country Community Foundation: The $10,000 Mac-Aero for Aeronautics and Aviation and the $5,000 Rising Star for elementary education students at Illinois State.

While all her scholarship recipients have been gracious and appreciative, current Mac-Aero winner, Lily Keutzer of Princeton stands out.

When Ethel was recovering from hip surgery last fall, the Indiana State freshman wrote her a two-page letter that said, in part:

“I am incredibly thankful for the generosity you have extended to me. I promise to honor your investment by working hard and making the most of my collegiate aviation program …

“Wishing you a speedy recovery and sending you warm hugs and positive vibes. My heartfelt well wishes, Lily.”

Ethel calls the letter “precious.”

“No question, she is extraordinary,” Ethel says of Lily.

Ethel taught for 35 years at grade schools in Aurora, Ottawa (Jefferson) and Marseilles. She created Rising Star in 2017, SRCCF’s first scholarship, to help those on the same path she took.

After attending a one-room school north of Dwight, Ethel excelled in speech and debate at Dwight High School and was named valedictorian. She made lifelong friends at ISU and remains in contact with a few classmates.

“I’m in touch with a lot of people,” she shares.

While recovering, she received “get well” wishes from many. “I am so thankful for the wonderful students I had.”

She inspired some to follow her calling.

“Working with children ended up being the love of my life. There was never a time I didn’t want to be a teacher,” she said.

Last summer, Lily earned her private pilot’s license at Cushing Field in Newark; a photo of Lily and the Evektor Harmony Light Sport Aircraft she trained on is proudly displayed in Ethel’s kitchen. Lily plans to earn the Certified Flight Instructor license to build hours toward a career flying cargo aircraft.

“Being awarded the Mac-Aero has allowed me to focus on my schoolwork rather than having to worry about paying for school,” Lily says. “I am beyond thankful for it.”

Aside from the sometimes-profound difference her scholarships make to a student’s life, Ethel herself delights in giving while she can enjoy it.

She and her late husband Ed saved throughout their 65-year marriage and now she relishes sharing it.

“I am so pleased I’ve been able to provide these awards. It’s what Ed and I wanted to do, and it’s worked out well.”

Mac-Aero recognizes Ed’s life work at their former airfield on the northeast edge of Seneca. Ethel only wishes Ed had had the opportunity to meet recipients like Lily.

“He would be in second heaven knowing Lily won his award,” she says with a smile.

Ethel, who will celebrate her 94th birthday in March, is a model for what research reveals about giving: it lowers stress, increases social connections and happiness – and can lead to a long life.

As students apply for Starved Rock Country Community Foundation scholarships through March 1, they can thank selfless individuals like Ethel for making them possible.

Personally, and selfishly, I hope Ethel graces our Foundation family for years to come and continues to reap the immense rewards of seeing students take flight.

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