My Alma Mater: Semper Fighting Illini

From Vietnam to First and John, Eric Kenney found his place as an Illini veteran

Eric Kenney Fueled by his interest in history and veterans’ gravesites, Kenney has found his post-retirement passion as a volunteer for throughout central Illinois. (Image courtesy of Eric Kenney)
From Vietnam to First and John, Eric Kenney found his place as an Illini veteran

In 1966, after one semester of college, I ran out of money and joined the U.S. Marine Corps. The Vietnam War was then well underway, and my balmy tour of southeast Asia took place in 1967 and ’68. It was filled with bridge-building and minesweeping, snipers shooting at my platoon and a woman’s voice coming from a loudspeaker every night, saying “You die tonight, Marine.”

Thankfully, I made it back from Vietnam. I later moved to Champaign-Urbana to study insurance and risk management at the U of I. There, I found a new home at the corner of First and John streets, at a place called the Illini Veterans House. My housemates were 30 other veterans—men from all over the U.S.—and we had a bar in the basement and an old pop machine that would dispense beer instead of soda.

At that time, there were around 10,000 students on campus, and veterans made up about 10 percent of the student body. Most of us thought we had died and gone to heaven, coming to the University of Illinois. A school that supported veterans and gave us a first-class education? It couldn’t be beat. 

My roommate at the Vets House was an accounting major from Chicago, Tom Burdette. Tom had been a linguist in the Air Force, monitoring U-2 spy flights and translating Chinese communications for intelligence. When Tom got really tired, he would drift off and talk in his sleep, in Chinese.

After two years at the Vets House, Tom and I became officers of the Illini Veterans Association (IVA). Our faculty sponsor was Martin Gershen, a journalism professor who had written a book about the My Lai massacre, Destroy or Die: The True Story of Mylai.

The IVA had an office in the Illini Union. The University helped us with supplies, paper, typewriters—really anything we needed, within reason. One time, the IVA president sent a bill to University President John Corbally, asking him to pay for a box of typing paper. I typed the cover letter and sent it off, without noticing an embarrassing mistake—I’d typed “bull” instead of “bill.” President Corbally got a big kick out of that!

Later, President Corbally dropped by the IVA office and I got to meet him: a genuine pleasure. His signature is on my diploma along with that of Chancellor Jack Peltason, who always had a smile on his face. They treated us veterans with respect, and we loved them for that and respected them back.

Every time I see my diploma, I think of those two men and the great kindness they showed us. With the Vietnam War still raging on the other side of the world, and all of us trying to readjust to life back home, they showed us warmth and respect when we really needed it. Fifty years later, I still remember the way they and so many others at Illinois made us feel welcome. For many veterans, that made all the difference. —Edited by Ryan A. Ross

Eric L. Kenney is retired from a 35-year career in the insurance industry.

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