Kendra Smiley’s Illini story begins in the first grade, when the six-year-old saw her big brother off to college in Champaign-Urbana.
“Two years later,” says the Bronze Tablet-winning author/speaker/host, “my sister headed there. At that point, I had no doubt where I’d be going to school in 10 years.
“When I was 16 years old, I met a young man at the local swimming pool, where I worked as a lifeguard. He was kind, good-looking, loved music and sports and was a U of I student. Could it get any better than that?
“When I was 18 years old, I joined this young man on campus. We sat together at basketball games, football games, at Krannert, in the library and at church on Sunday.
“When I was 20 years old, and he prepared to head to pilot training with the Air Force, we were married. I put my education on hold for one semester and then raced through my courses, graduating on schedule.
“When I was 26 years old, our first son was born and within six years we had three sons.
“And when I was ... older, I enjoyed seeing all three of those boys graduate from — you guessed it — the University of Illinois. Not only that, but in those years, I continued to enjoy U of I athletics and music, watching our eldest as a football walk-on and then a student coach; our middle son as a member of the Marching Illini; and our youngest, as a left-handed relief pitcher for the Fighting Illini.
“Love for the university and for U of I athletics and music was in their genetic makeup and the stadium and baseball field were two places that hold great memories for me."