50 Influencers: Mary Ellen Aiken, Friend of the Arts

INA, Ill. (May 13, 2017) – The dedication to education by the next entry on the 50 Influencer list cannot be questioned.  With teaching careers at both Benton Consolidated High School and Rend Lake College, Mary Ellen Aiken has spent much of her life dedicated to cultivation of young minds.

Aiken spent 29 years teaching in mathematics at BCHS, plus three years in other locations. In the post-secondary world, she worked for RLC as a part-time instructor, and was an instrumental force for BCHS students receiving dual enrollment math credit while they were still in high school.

aikenwebMary Ellen Aiken

“I’m excited about the opportunity to help students go on with their careers,” she said when the dual credit program was first launched. “High school students are very excited about dual credit, particularly the Calculus and Pre-Calculus classes. Those are big draws because, in most cases, they transfer to four-year universities. I’ve seen how advantageous it is to get that dual credit.”

Aiken graduated from the University of Illinois, taught in the Chicago area for a short time, and then “came back to where my heart is.” She now resides in Benton with her husband John.

In addition to classroom education, Aiken has been a strong proponent of the arts, acting as one of the driving forces behind the RLC Theatre renovation. Her participation in the “Friends of the Theatre” Campaign ensured that future students, and community members, were afforded a quality facility to take in concerts, plays and speakers.

Joining the Rend Lake College Foundation Board of Directors in 2006, Aiken used the platform to get involved with the theatre project, something she had passion for after both of her daughters performed in plays there. Aiken also plays piano and has provided accompaniment for RLC productions before.

“This is not only good for the college, it is good for the surrounding area,” Aiken said of the renovation.

Former Rend Lake College Foundation CEO Pat Kern, along with Aiken, set out to initially raise $50,000 – one-quarter of the projected $200,000 needed to make the renovation a reality.

By August of 2007, the “Friends of the Theatre” campaign had generated more than $63,000.

But, they didn’t stop there.

With preliminary designs not accounting for much-needed lighting and sound upgrades, the theatre’s “Friends” pitched in more support. Total campaign contributions as of mid-March of that year were $72,700.

The renovation was underway by November and the rest, as they say, is history.

A gala was held in February 2008 to unveil the new look and pay tribute to supporters of the cause.

aikenswebMary Ellen Aiken and her husband John Aiken.

For her efforts, Aiken was presented with the 2008 RLCF President’s Award.

 “She is known for her enthusiasm and positive attitude,” Kern said when presenting Aiken the honor.

Aiken made many personal phone calls on behalf of fundraising efforts to restore the Theatre and served on its Decorating Committee to help ensure the final product portrayed the intended traditional theatre appearance.

But, her generosity and passion for the arts didn’t stop there. In 2012 RLC was looking at renovating several of the band rooms utilized by the college’s music students. The goal of the campaign was to raise $50,000 for the renovations. The project was spearheaded by the RLC Foundation, and through the generosity of donors, the effort ultimately netted more than $100,000.

Aiken and her husband John were among some of the most generous contributors. For their donation, they were honored with the “Mary Ellen and John D. Aiken Classroom” in the college’s Learning Resource Center.

The couple is also the recipient of the RLCF Silver Seal Award for their continued dedication to the college and its students.

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