For Kenna Lee Carlson, leaving her job as Union’s alumni activities director is not a retirement so much as a promotion to full-time family activities director. “I don’t want to just go home and put my feet up, you know. That's not my reason for retiring. It’s to be busy in other ways,” Kenna Lee said. “I see my time is getting close to the end, and I need to spend some time on my family stuff—more time for what I love.” She’s been with Union for twenty-eight years, first working in the Nursing Program, then in the Records Office, and most recently as the alumni activities director. Now, she’ll be putting the energy once dedicated to Union’s nearly 13,000 living alumni into her eight grandchildren, nonagenarian mother-in-law and the rest of her family.
A wish to be a mother
As a young person, Kenna Lee’s dream was to become three things: a college graduate, an elementary school teacher, and most importantly, a mother. She felt lonely waiting to find a husband, but she trusted in God and planned her life as if she would never find someone. But she did—a charming theology major named Rich Carlson. They married on New Year’s Eve of their senior year at Union and marched together at graduation. For more than 49 years, Rich and Kenna Lee have anchored each other in their shared ministries.
While Kenna Lee’s years of service have been closely linked to her husband’s, she urges students to not wait for a partner to start following God’s calling. “I don’t think God has just one route for you. Had Rich not come into my life, God would have led another direction,” Kenna Lee said. “He will help guide you wherever you are.”
After college, Kenna Lee taught at an elementary school for one year before she became pregnant with their first child and stepped back from teaching. As her children grew, she decided to remain at home and began homeschooling her three children–Brian, Dan, and Greg. Rich, who had become the chaplain at Union by this time, had an erratic schedule with a lot of evening and weekend responsibilities. The flexibility of homeschooling allowed the family to spend more time together while Rich continued to lead and mentor college students.
“She could have gone as far as what her head’s capable of doing; she could have done anything,” Pastor Rich said. He thought of her leaving her career as a teacher as a sacrifice, but she felt differently. She told him years ago that she’d done what she wanted to do–it wasn’t a sacrifice to her. On top of that, she’d used her education to raise and teach her own children. She loved being a mother.
Part of our heritage
By 1994, Kenna Lee’s three sons had started high school and she returned to the workforce. She first started working at Union in the Nursing Program. She transferred to the Records Office two years later, becoming a gentle, guiding hand to students registering for college.
For many alumni who remember Kenna Lee during her 16 years in Records, she was the motherly face of Union. “Kenna Lee was the first person we would see in the fifth floor offices, and she greeted every lost student with a smile,” said Scott Cushman, a 2003 graduate. “You quickly learned that when you didn't know who to see or where to go, you’d just ask Kenna Lee. In my four years as a student and 15 years as a coworker, she’s proved that hypothesis over and over again.”
She moved to the Advancement Office in 2012, four years after the school switched to online registration. As the alumni activities director, Kenna Lee missed her open window to the hall, learning the names of every student at registration and finding ways to encourage and guide them in their journeys. However, she came into the office with a vital resource. “Her brain is just connected across practically our whole alumni base,” said LuAnn Davis, vice president for Advancement. Kenna Lee, beyond her time working for Union, has been at Union—immersed in the community—for more than 40 years.
As the alumni activities director, Kenna Lee maintained connections to the alumni community, keeping track of new developments in their lives and recording them in Union’s database. She stayed in touch with alumni everywhere—at her grandchildren’s events, at church, and even on social media. When major life events happened, such as new babies or family passings, Kenna Lee kept in tune and would send out the correct materials as soon as she made it back to her office. Her attention to detail and constant awareness has kept the alumni office running smoothly, continuing the legacy of the previous alumni activities directors.
“There are people who embrace the organization and embed themselves in what the organization is, and that’s her,” LuAnn said. “She is full-in Union, whatever it takes.” LuAnn has witnessed Kenna Lee’s exemplary persistence and servant leadership for the nine years since she hired her. Kenna Lee wasn’t sure of herself at first, but from the beginning her skills met and exceeded LuAnn’s expectations.
One of the lasting testaments to Kenna Lee’s determination is the mission recognition board in the lobby of the Everett Dick Building. Union has honored alumni and student missionaries since 1906 with the Hanging of the Golden Cords as well as adding the names of the missionaries to a display in the administration building. By 2013, the list had reached the end of the allotted space. The electronic display was created as a gift from the graduating class of 2013. Kenna Lee worked with Information Systems to guide the display’s user experience, streamlined the work of updating information and photos in the database, and tirelessly researched alumni going back more than a century to fill in missing data.
Kenna Lee’s most visible contribution is planning and coordinating Union’s annual homecoming, now called the reUnion. She works tirelessly all year to ensure the weekend events are engaging and welcoming for alumni of all ages, keeping classes connected to each other and their alma mater. After a year of planning, the energy she puts in behind the scenes during the weekend itself is Herculean. “If you’ve ever watched her, she does not stop from the point Plant Services sets up the first table until the last bit of trash is gone and everything’s down,” LuAnn said. “Connecting people with people is important work for Kenna Lee and so is connecting people with this campus.”
"I'm very grateful for Kenna Lee's diligent work to benefit our alumni and the college,” LuAnn continued. “Keeping connected with alumni cultivates relationships between alumni who haven’t seen each other in years, connects Union with its history, keeps our heritage alive, and provides alumni opportunities to give back to support the next generation, just as they were supported by alumni during their time as a student."
While her title says “alumni,” Kenna Lee also continually demonstrates how much she cares for current students and finds ways to encourage them and connect them with alumni. Many Union students are far from home, so Kenna Lee makes and distributes gift baskets and gift bags on behalf of families and friends. These LifeSavors (given during final exams) and Party Packs (available all year) make it easy for a parent to make their child’s day feel special—but it’s only easy because Kenna Lee has done the hard part.
She also organizes the Rees Haul each year. This two-day event enlists the college’s alumni and employees in welcoming new students by helping them move into Rees Hall, which has no elevator. While most volunteers only commit to a two-hour shift in the August heat, Kenna Lee stays the entire two days, helping carry microwaves and bags and giving directions through Rees’ labyrinthine halls. “Fathers have stood there absolutely dumbfounded, just simply handing stuff out and having it carried away,” LuAnn laughed, musing that most of the incoming students were first-years moving into the fourth floor.
While her interactions with current students were limited in her most recent role, Kenna Lee’s student workers built strong connections with her. “I never felt like I was just a student worker. I always felt like I was a valued member of the team, and that I was needed and important,” said Hannah Olin, who worked for Kenna Lee for two years. Kenna Lee treated her kindly, and they bonded over their mutual love of football. “I would call her my boss, but I would also call her my friend. We had a lot of fun together.”
Another student worker, Annika Cambigue, said, “I don’t like getting up early, but I didn’t mind getting up early to work for Kenna Lee. She was definitely passionate about her job and making sure everything worked out well. She was amazing to work for.”
Caitlynn Davis, who worked with Kenna Lee for three years, said, “She is very much a lead-by-example person. I’ve seen how much effort she puts into her work, and how much she cares, and it’s made me care more about the work that I do.”
They’ll miss Kenna Lee, but they’re also happy for her. Hannah Olin said, “I’m excited for her and this new phase of life. She deserves to have some time to do what she wants to do, and just enjoy her retirement.”
The Carlsons will be staying in Lincoln, spending time with their family here and taking care of Rich’s mother, who is still up and mostly independent at 90+ years old. But she will miss the day-to-day experience of the college. “Rich and I will really miss the connection with the students. And we talk about it a lot, we talk about our children—but the rest of the college are our kids too. We’re still 100% Union supporters. I will continue to reach out to see how God can use me.”
Kenna Lee’s successor as Union’s alumni activities director will have no trouble enlisting her help as a mentor and volunteer. Peggy Christensen Carlson graduated from Union with a degree in business administration in 2000 and also happens to be married to Kenna Lee’s middle son, Dan.
Though Kenna Lee is leaving behind her alumni databases, she gets to go home and apply her meticulous research skills to the genealogy of her family. She and her sister have long shared an interest in family histories and can’t wait to have more time to work on the project. Kenna Lee has all the pieces, now she just has to put them together. “I would just like it gathered so that anyone who has an interest will have access to something that they can use and look at,” she said, smiling.
Though married to an avid world traveler, Kenna Lee would usually rather read about places than go there, but she’s told Rich she loves going with him because he can make anything an adventure. They don’t really have any concrete plans for post-retirement journeys except perhaps seeing the Grand Canyon and Israel. Pastor Rich has never been to the Grand Canyon, and Kenna Lee has never seen Israel, though Rich has been there and told her many stories about it.
“I think we’ve lived a good, balanced life where we take time for the things that are important,” Kenna Lee’s husband, Pastor Rich, said. “We’re looking forward to going for walks in the morning, and having time just to say, ‘which way do we go?’”
by Maria Kercher, junior communication major