Happy Mother’s Day to my Pioneer Mom

With Title IX Mom would've have been an NIU athlete

 

As we say in French “merci mille fois” thank you a million times for being my mom!
Greeting card companies remind us to mark this day, but I think of you every day.

I have been so fortunate to have been born to you — a generous, kindhearted, intelligent Norwegian-American mom, who guided me through tough transitions with my identity intact during the tumultuous 60s and 70s. Because of you, I became adventurous, courageous and tenacious.

I hate to imagine what my life would have been like growing up at that time period without a mom like you. You let me be me, warts and all. As if you knew that one day this hellbent, stubborn, ornery child would grow up to be a curious, compassionate, tolerant human being.

You nurtured me as a baby, cheered on my first shaky steps as a toddler and applauded even when those bold footsteps led me across the globe.

A family of four by age 26

I could have never navigated my role as a trailblazer without a forward thinking mom encouraging me to overcome setbacks, supporting me through the trials of being a first, and nursing me back from injuries in my rough and tumble life as a female athlete.

You never forced me to sit pretty on the sideline in dainty dresses, instead you let me mix it up and play ball with boys in my grassed-stained dungarees.

Because you accepted me early on, I learned to like myself long before society willingly let girls in the game.

I often credit Dad as my coach, but you were my counselor!

If I became a Title IX pioneer, it was because from day one, my loving, patient, pioneer mom believed in me.

Four generations

So many of our mothers no longer walk this earth, but their impact in our lives abides forever.

I am grateful that you are still here as such a cherished part of my life. Sometimes I wish I lived right next door, so I could check up on you, the way you’ve have watched over me, but thanks to modern technology, we remain only a phone call apart.

How I treasure our conversations! We discuss everything from ancestors, to books, to history, to politics, to human rights. As a teenager, I ignored your suggestions, but as an adult I turned to you for advice. Today I listen carefully to your words, sometimes, even taking notes when you impart your pearls of wisdom.

First grandchild in the family

Today I truly appreciate your selflessness. As you once told me, we offer our babies as a gift to the world the moment they leave our wombs.

Because of your example, I learned how to live a kinder, calmer, more generous life filled with gratitude.

In turn, I passed on that grace, not only to my own two biological children, but to hundreds of others that I coached and taught.

You taught me how to love unconditionally and then let go. Though, now we too live far apart, my daughter, a pediatrician in the USA and my son, a chiropractor in England fulfill their own destiny helping others through their chosen professions.

You showed me how to be a strong, resilient woman, how to bridge the distances between us and strengthen the bonds between cultures, countries and generations.

Sadly, our mothers cannot live eternally, but we carry their love with us always, forevermore.

 

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Hometown Engraved in Heart Forever

 

Many Sterlingites moved away from town, but like me still bleed blue and gold. Like a tattoo, our Sterling High School days remain ingrained in our hearts.

Decades ago, I moved to Europe to pursue my crazy (at that time) dream to play pro basketball, but Sterling has remained my chez moi. Relocating dozens of times between four different countries, my family, my hometown, my community remained my anchor.

Others SHS graduates have moved across the States, but remained tied to places like Coletta, Woodlawn, Jefferson,Washington and good ol’ SHS. For some local families - Dietz, McKinzie, Smith, Yemm, Zion - our parents serving as teachers, coaches, administrators formed bricks in the foundation of SHS. Following generations became pillars of strength in our own professions and communities.

During turbulent times, on the heels of the civil and women’s rights movements, high school sports united gender, race and economic backgrounds in a sense of community on Sterling’s stellar courts, fields and stadium.

I was a pioneer in the infancy of Title IX, before girls state championships existed. That title belonged to my dad, my younger sister, Karen, and her teammates.

Title IX June 23, 1972, a federal civil rights law prohibiting sex-based discrimination in any educational institution that received federal funding made this opportunity possible. It leveled the playing fields for women in sport and education opening doors to careers in law, medicine, and science careers.

SHS implemented Title IX faster than other communities, so Sterling girls gained gender equity sooner than those living in other parts of the country. Consequently, the time was right for our beloved 1977 1st state championship girls basketball team to triumph.

We must never forget the sacrifices of those who came before us.

Could hard fought Title IX’s rights be revoked like some of our other recently overturned civil liberties?

An attack on any one of women’s rights is an attack on all of our rights.

Title IX gave me the opportunity to become the first female athletic scholarship recipient at Illinois State University, a 1st women’s pro league draftee, and one of first American females to play overseas. No one remembers my name. No matter. What matters is that we earned the right to do these things.

“Your role,” my friend Phil reminds me, “was to lead others to the promised land.”

Back in the day, the only glory I had, was beating him one on one. He taught me the sky hook, behind the back dribble and other moves of the NBA, skills that I fine tuned playing pick-up ball with boys in Homer Musgrove Fieldhouse.

In the 70s and early 80s, girls’ basketball was still taboo, which forced me abroad to play the game I loved.

Coaches Phil Smith and Jim McKinzie

Every step of my way, mentors guided me, beginning with my dad and Phil Smith at SHS, Jill Hutchison at ISU, and then Henry Fields, father of French basketball, who took me under his wing when I coached in Europe.

After my playing career ended in a car accident abroad, I followed in their footsteps becoming a coach. For the next three decades, I passed on their knowledge of the game in France and Switzerland. My career can’t be measured in championships, but in the strength of character of those I coached, who later advocated for social justice in their own homelands.

Nothing was a given. Nothing was taken for granted. Nothing was accomplished without gratitude.

As a kid, I felt lucky to grow up playing safely outdoors in Sterling. During backyard games, we learned to share, negotiate and resolve differences. Later at SHS, we honed our skills in athletic facilities finer than any I’ve ever seen in Europe.

I could lament that I sacrificed my body and soul to basketball without ever receiving accolades, sponsorships, and financial rewards of today’s female basketball stars. Or I could feel blessed to have been there when it all began, to play my humble part in history. I will be forever grateful that I fulfilled my calling passing on my love of the game to hundreds of international athletes including my daughter and son.

As the granddaughter of Coach “Mac” Ralph McKinzie and daughter of Coach Jim McKinzie, I grew up with a legacy of integrity. I was a product of Sterling High School, a Golden Warrior and an Illinois State Redbird, raised in the Land of Lincoln.

Fran Smith clears the lane

I touched the lives of kids from around the globe,

But I never forgot my heritage,

I always honored my roots.

Every challenged faced,

I remained Warrior Strong.

No matter where I live,

My McKinzie heart beats blue and gold.

Old Friends Forever Family

Girlfriends get us through tough times, celebrate our victories and always got our back.

In our senior year at Illinois State University, I shared a townhouse off campus with five friends. We called ourselves family.

Ever loyal fans, they supported me my final season of college basketball that began badly with a back injury. Frustrated by the setback, I limped in walking crooked. They welcomed me home by tilting the wall pictures sideways too.

When my younger sister needed a place to stay, they squeezed her in. I forfeited my spot in our triple, moved to the basement, slept on a mat on the floor and stored clothes in cardboard boxes. In the dungeon, I never heard my bunkmates’ early alarm clock with the darn dozer button. It never felt like a sacrifice until the basement flooded.

Only one housemate was my biological sibling, but we called each other sisters, except for the most responsible one in the group, who we nicknamed mom.

“The family” was always there for me.

Every happy occasion we played our theme song, “We are Family,” and danced our fool heads off.

They hugged me goodbye at the airport, when I chased my dream to play pro ball in Paris. After my career ending car accident in France, they flew abroad to urge me to keep fighting. They held my hand when I lost my first baby in an harrowing miscarriage at an isolated cabin in the woods. When our children were still young enough to drag around, we gathered for “family reunions” on my stateside visits.

When my dad died, they flew in from all over to attend his memorial service. The only one who could not be there sent her husband as a stand in.

Forty-five years after college graduation, during a bitter cold January, they drove six hours to Minneapolis to see me before I flew back home to Switzerland.

My husband, bless his little cotton socks, catered to us. Like a 5 star French chef, he served fine wine, "boeuf bourguignon", and "mousse au chocolat". Over champagne, we toasted to ISU, to friendship, to resiliency. We survived thyroid cancer, breast cancer, brain surgery, a car wreck and other calamities.

None of us followed the traditional script. We navigated divorce, death of a spouse, childbirth, adoption, step-children, cross cultural marriage and grandchildren.

We shared highlights and hardships, disappointments and disasters, triumphs and tragedies.

We attained lofty goals becoming a pro athlete, a physical therapist, teachers, coaches, and administrators. We raised families, nurtured aging parents, dedicated our careers to helping others.

We treasured memories of that special time as college students when we starred in our own life stories savoring lazy weekends, crazy keggers and Florida spring break.

Never again would we be so carefree or live under the same roof, but we knew we could count on each other forevermore. Always. Til death do us part.

Thankfully, we are all still here.

Dancing!

“We are Family. I got all my sisters with me!”

Farewell to my First Coach – My Dad, My Hero

Dad was my lighthouse, guiding me ashore when lost in life’s stormy sea. He died on August 8, 2022 just nine days shy of his 91st birthday. Without him I drift bereft.

My dad and I shared a special bond made stronger through a love of sports and our fierce determination to overcome obstacles.

My athleticism was a genetic gift; my fighting spirit part of the McKinzie bloodline.

Growing up, I never appreciated his athletic talents. He never boasted about his own accolades, but was always the first to applaud others’ achievements.

As a college athlete at Northern Illinois State University, he was a 3 sport division I athlete and MVP in 2 major sports. He was inducted into the NIU hall of fame three times, as an individual player and as a team member in the 1951 football and baseball teams. He was part of the NIU Century Basketball Team and Decade “50’s” football team.  As a coach, he was also inducted into the Sterling High School Hall of Fame and the Illinois Basketball Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame.

But he remained humble. His passion lay in helping others achieve their goals. He impacted countless young lives in his role as an educator, coach, and mentor.

He will be remembered for his kindness, generosity, tolerance, humor and compassion for the underdog. He treated everyone equally regardless of class, age, ethnicity, nationality, religious affiliation or gender identity. He also advocated for women’s right to participate in sports in the infancy of Title IX.

Fondly remembered as ‘Papa Mac’ for leading his daughter Karen and her “Golden Girl” teammates to the first girls State Basketball Championship in 1977, he also guided the 1979 third place and 1980 Elite 8 girls state basketball teams.

And he coached me.

At a time when women’s sports was taboo, his guidance made me an outstanding pioneer basketball player — one of the 1st female athletic scholarship recipients at Illinois State University, professional players in the USA and American women to play in Europe.
In one of our last visits, we reminisced about the hours we spent shooting baskets. I re-enacted how he taught me to drop into 3 point football stance and run a v-slant pattern with my fingertips stretched to the sky, ready to catch his perfect spiral pass.

“You also taught me how to swing a baseball bat, serve a volleyball, swish a hook shot!”

“I betcha I taught you all the ball games,” dad said and chuckled.

“You also showed me how to balance a check book, change a flat tire, catch a fish, ride a bike, drive a car.”

“You were a good learner,” he told me.

“You were the best teacher.”

Just ask his former campers at Camp Neyati Wisconsin or the hundreds of students and athletes whose lives he touched in his 35 year teaching/coaching — basketball, football, baseball, track — career. He served as a pillar of the community, a brick in the foundation of Sterling High School.

My dad, a man of integrity, walked the talk. He saw the best in each of us and then coached it out of us.

How many of his former students and athletes went on to dedicate their lives to teaching and coaching?

Like my grandfather, and my father, when my playing career ended, I became an ambassador of the game. I guided athletes on the global arena teaching and coaching 33 yrs in Europe. I passed on not only dad’s basketball expertise, but also his philosophy of life.

In a ripple effect, my dad’s ethos — honesty, acceptance and fair play — echoed around the world when my former international players returned to their passport countries to advocate for social justice.

Dad, I wish I could play my guitar for you one last time.

“I can’t sing on key to save my life,” dad would say as he whistled along.

You may not have had a musical bone in your body, dad, but your life was a rhapsody. Your spirit united the chorus of humanity.

You were a gifted artist.

Whether teaching city boys to appreciate nature at Camp Neyati, counseling teens on the playing fields and in the classrooms, painting landscapes for loved ones, or writing a letters of encouragement, your work comforted us all.

A hug from you could lift a soul for a lifetime.

As I reflect back on how hard it was to stand after my accidents, I hear your voice inspiring me to walk again. Whenever I hike the Swiss mountains or wander Wisconsin’s Northwoods, I remember you.

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Every breath I take, every step I make, every word I speak, every kindness I share, I think of you.

Your light shines eternally as we offer our guidance to the next generation while whistling your song in our hearts.

You left the best kind of legacy.

Your love lives on.

A Memorial Service will be hosted on Sunday, August 28th at the Schilling Funeral Home in Sterling (visitation11-2 PM and service 2 PM.)   In lieu of flowers, his family requests donations be made in his name to Jim & Lenore McKinzie Scholarship Fund care of Sterling-Rock Falls Community Trust, (Midland States Bank, 302 1st Ave, Sterling, Il 61081) to help a deserving student going into education or to the  Sterling Schools Foundation (510 East Miller Rd, Sterling, Il 61081 www.sterlingschoolsfoundation.org

Cards to Lenore McKinzie 1424 W. 21st St. 61081 Sterling, IL USA

Bittersweet Pain Saying Goodbye to Family Home

How do you say goodbye to the house you fell in love with at first sight, where you raised a family, enjoyed a career, and appreciated the view outside each window?

We watched the sun rise over the Alps from the bedroom and living room and saw it set behind the Jura Mountains from the guest room and kitchen.

Here, we endured a quarter of a century of job pressures, personal losses, individual triumphs, petty arguments, home improvement projects.

We watched our children grow up shooting baskets in front of the carport and throwing footballs in the backyard across from golden rape seed fields. We commemorated birthdays and holidays, celebrated championships and graduations, and turned every visit from family and friends into a party.

We savored French favorites dining in front of winter fires and relished summer backyard barbecues, watching sailboats drift across the lake and the clouds float over the mountain range in the ever changing light.

Like our son said, “if only you could take the view with you.”

We sang and danced and played our way through our children’s growing up years. We read the Bernstein Bears, BoxCar Children, and Babysitter Club with grade schoolers, listened to Backstreet Boys and Beyonce with preteens, and watched Friends and The Wire with high schoolers.

When the kids went outside to play on the paved paths intersecting the farmers’ fields, we knew they could ride scooters, bikes and roller blade safely without the danger of speeding cars and deadly guns.

Many years ago, we boxed up the Electric Train Set, Play Mobile Toys, and Beanie Babies to donate. Instead they gathered dust under the stairwell because we could not bear to part with them.

In the process of packing up, we discovered memories tucked away in every attic nook, closet shelf and basement cupboards.

Our house, a compact twin, built on 3 levels, was big enough to store them all.

It was a quirky place. The master bathroom, bigger than the kitchen, had purple bathroom tiles and a tub big enough to swim in. Fifteen stairs between each flight kept us so fit, we never needed to join a health club. The hallway upstairs, which held 3 book shelves, was wide enough for a dining table

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We never interior decorated. Yet each photograph and painting held special significance. Dad’s clown face paintings brightened the kids room and his landscapes enlightened the living room. Mom’s cross stitched wall hanging and homemade curtains made us think of family far away.

Cutlery, wine glasses and cooking-ware from Gerald’s folks, along with traditional French recipes, reminded us that the kitchen is the heart of the home.

I’ll never forget walking down the stairs from our bedroom and greeting Mt. Blanc every morning or seeing our son sliding across the hallway in his stocking feet every night.

I will always remember hollering downstairs to wake up our teenage daughter, who adored the independence of a basement room, like I once did.

The sound of a basketball bouncing outside my kitchen window became the background beat measuring our days.

We bid farewell not only to a house, but to our neighborhood, to our international school, to the time of our lives when so much happened, so fast, we wish could turn back time for a moment just once to sit the bench for one more ball game.

It’s been a good house.

It sheltered our souls from crushing setbacks, helped us endure painful transitions, warmed our hearts with good times and gave us the space to learn to forgive and go forward.

Here, we survived heartbreaks and disappointments. We healed from a broken collar bone, an ankle, 2 fingers and umpteen sprains, and recovered illness - pneumonia, mononucleous,viruses. We recovered from accidents, learned to get back up and to keep going.

Our house offered comfort and warmth, shelter and shade.

How do you say goodbye to the home that shaped you?

You don’t. You take it with you.

Every memory, every souvenir, every remembrance.

Rise Again An Inspiration

rise again in the Jury mountainsThis is the second year anniversary of my death. Only I lived. How do you process a near death experience, when you realized you could have, should have, would have died? Without the miracle of emergency helicopter transport, highly skilled neurosurgeons and endless encouragement of therapists, family and friends, I wouldn’t be here.

I feel guilty. Why am I still here when so many other younger, brighter, better people have died so senselessly in accidents, illness, war, COVID and other catastrophes?

I must use my time to do something meaningful for others. Why else are we here on earth if not help our fellow mankind? On April 10, 2020, I had an accident from which I am still recovering; but I had already lived over 6 decades.

A former student’s battle back from brain injury was eerily similar, but so much worse. Gordon was only 13 years old when he hit his head in a tragic ski accident. He spent months in a coma in Grenoble, France and then many more recovering in a children’s rehabilitation hospital in Zurich, Switzerland. He eventually returned to school. Now he is turning his tragedy into inspiration for other kids.

I can relate to every scene of Gordon’s honestly raw documentary as I relived memories of my hours of therapy. I stumbled down the hallways of my rehab center gripping wall bars, I repeated numbers and letters on flash cards and molded lumps of clay to regain dexterity in my fingers. I learned to lift my foot, swing my arm, hold utensils.

hiking the Jury

I scowled at my occupational therapist when she tried to reteach me things I’d learned as a two-year-old like wash my face, brush my teeth, wipe my butt.

In the basement hallway of the hospital I paced, stopping in front of the door labeled “Morgue,” giving thanks for my great fortune. I could be dead. I pushed through exhaustion, humiliation and hopelessness to heal.

In the aftermath of a brain injury, I raced against time to maximize a phenomena known as neuroplasticity. One can retrain the brain using different neurons to compensate for those severed in the brain from trauma.

After hours of occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy and neuropsychology, I collapsed in bed falling asleep only to be woken minutes later by another therapist to take me to my afternoon sessions. I wanted to scream, “Go away!”

Instead I set goals - get outside the hospital, outside my broken body, outside the prison in my mind.

rise again in the Jury mountainsTwo years later, I can walk for miles, talk for hours and swim again. I must appreciate how far I have come and accept that my rehabilitation journey is ongoing with therapy, treatment, and exercise until recovery becomes my way of life.

Gordon, an inspiring teenage boy, who came back from the brink summed it up when he recounts what he learned on his unexpected journey.

“There is always something to be grateful for no matter how unlikely. Beauty surrounds us, but we have to CHOSE to want to see it.”

“Never compare yourself to others. Each person has their own journey.”

“Life is full of challenges; it is not always meant to be easy. It is not what happens to us; it is how we chose to respond to it. Goals happen only when we are challenged and this is opportunity.”

Before he even took his first steps, Gordon set a new goal - walk over 2000 meters up the Schilthorn Mountain in Switzerland.

He did it.

Here is his story.