During her half-century career in education, Marguerite Key developed a clear view of what made a positive difference in reaching, and teaching, students.
An indispensable ingredient: effective leadership, from the district superintendent and building principal to other top-level personnel who provide direction and set the tone in any given school environment.
For 24 years, Key has backed that conviction with consistent support of her alma mater, Northern Illinois University, including programs devoted to expanding the knowledge of educational leaders. In recognition of her generosity, the NIU Foundation has selected Key as this year’s recipient of its Lifetime Achievement Award for Philanthropy.
“Her generous philanthropy has helped ensure that NIU remains the ‘go-to’ institution for educational leadership preparation,” said Catherine Squires, vice president of the Division of University Advancement and president and CEO of the NIU Foundation. “She has turned her lifelong commitment to professional, ethical leadership in schools and school districts into a legacy of impact at NIU.”
Key graduated from Northern Illinois State Teachers College in 1944 with a major in biology and a minor in music. She taught at NIU from 1947 to 1951, working with teachers in rural districts and one-room schoolhouses and developing a deeper passion for the tradition, history and importance of education.
When informed of the award, Key modestly explained that she felt there must be others more deserving. She paused, recalling the eager, aspiring teachers she taught 70 years ago.
“They were rural teachers who worked so hard,” she said. “They were so proud.” Taking a moment to reflect on her own contributions, she added, “I cared.”
For many years, Key served as director of counseling at a middle school in Arlington, Virginia. Her husband, Norman, worked for the National Educational Association and the National Commission on Safety Education. After his death in 1995, she returned to DeKalb and became involved in the successful campaign to purchase the Milan Township one- room schoolhouse and to move it to the NIU campus. This restored schoolhouse is now part of the college’s history of education collection, helping to preserve the legacy of public education in the U.S.
She also became more involved in activities and programs in the College of Education, serving on the college’s Development Committee for many years and helping to develop and promote fundraising and volunteer efforts.
Her gifts have made possible the development and implementation of innovative programs in the areas of principal and superintendent preparation. Her support has enabled the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations to support student and faculty success, and it has impacted the community through the Key Grants for the Professional Development of School Administrators, which are awarded to school districts to help support the professional growth and effectiveness of school administrators.
Laurie Elish-Piper, dean of NIU’s College of Education, called Key “a pioneer in thinking about not only her work as an educator, but making gifts that will continue on and allow many people to be impacted in a positive way, well into the future.”
“Her generosity has provided amazing support and training for educational leaders,” Elish-Piper said. “Those ripples trickle outward into the experiences of teachers, other school personnel, students and their families in their respective school districts.”
In addition to her generous support of the College of Education, Key has given to the Northern Fund, the College of Health and Human Sciences, Athletics, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
Key’s latest legacy is the Marguerite F. Key Fellows program, which will annually select preschool, elementary and secondary school leaders from across northern Illinois to participate in an annual conference on the NIU campus. Fellows either hold formal positions of leadership, such as curriculum directors and principals, or informal positions of leadership in which their work has a strong impact on college-aspiring students and their families.
The first class of 12 fellows will meet for a two-day conference in June 2018, said Carolyn Pluim, department chair and associate professor of the Foundations of Education.
“What’s inspiring about her is that she has this gift for asking difficult questions, a belief in the value of offering ongoing professional development opportunities for educators and a commitment to lifelong learning,” Pluim said.
Maurice McDavid, dean of students at DeKalb High School, is among those who have graduated from the principal preparation program supported by Key. He began his current position shortly before he finished the program a year ago and its impact reverberates daily, especially in McDavid’s outlook on how to engage the community in different ways.
“When we invite parents to learn about the discipline process so that we can further support our students, something I learned from the program was the importance of providing transportation for parents who could not otherwise make it,” said McDavid. “We’re looking at removing those social barriers.”
Dr. Jeff Schuler, superintendent of Community Unit School District 200 in Wheaton-Warrenville, has taken superintendent preparation coursework at NIU and has helped revamp the leadership programs.
In discussing the impact of school leaders, he aptly describes the far-reaching influence of Key’s support of those educational leaders.
“The most essential role of a leader is creating the conditions for others to have a meaningful impact within the organization,” said Schuler. “When we bring up the collective good, we are exponentially more impactful in the work that we do. I absolutely believe that principal leadership is the pivot point to improving schools, to helping schools create better conditions for kids to learn. Helping the next generation of educators become leaders of our school system is absolutely critical.”
To make a gift to the NIU Foundation, visit niufoundation.org/give. Choose the “Student Scholarships” option or call 877-GIV-2-NIU (877-448-2648).