Student Mom

Mary Frances Graham graduates from Illinois with Bronze Tablet honors—around the same time as five of her children

The Graham clan gathered in two rows, one seated and the other standing, which includes 21 adults and 3 kids. The Graham clan gathered on May 6, 2023, at Papa Del’s Pizza Factory in Champaign to celebrate the 90th birthday of matriarch Mary Frances Graham (front row, center). Front Row: Shirley Faughn, Crystal Graham, Campbell Graham, Angela Graham, Corban Graham (on lap), Mary Graham, Linda Graham, Ehrica Graham, Callan Graham (on lap), Susanna Graham. Back Row: Rob Wengewicz, Stefanie Wengewicz, Don Desmett, Jean Graham, Dan Graham, Lorraine Graham, David Graham, John Graham, Emmabelle Graham (in arms), Nancy Graham, Ronald Graham, William Zummo, Spencer Graham, Eric Graham. (Image by Terry Farmer)
Mary Frances Graham graduates from Illinois with Bronze Tablet honors—around the same time as five of her children

Life couldn’t have been that much easier half a century ago. Right?

Some people just make it look that way.

Consider Mary Frances Graham, ’77 ACES. In the early 1950s, Graham, a Champaign resident, graduated from University High and married Tony Graham. The couple had six children and fed them by renting rooms to U of I students. “The angels looked down upon me and Tony and said, ‘We think those two need some help,’” says Graham. “‘We’re going to send them good children.’” Sure enough, the young Grahams all went to college—five of them to Illinois.

Remarkably, their mother went to the U of I, too. “This was before computers; I would type papers for students,” says Graham, now a luminous 90-year-old who still lives on her own. “I was correcting spelling and grammar, changing some wording. One day I thought, ‘I could be doing this for myself.’”

She began with two years at Parkland College, where she made straight A’s. Applying to Illinois, she hit a speed bump. “They said they were holding spaces for more qualified students,” Graham says, with a smidgeon of irony. She persuaded the administration to admit her, then went on to graduate with Bronze Tablet honors. Her degree in space planning and design enabled her to help with the family real estate business, which had burgeoned from rooms to entire apartment buildings.

Sadly, Tony Graham, who died two years ago, didn’t get to wish her a happy 90th birthday on May 1, also the anniversary of the day they got engaged. But her children surprised her with a party on May 6. On hand were: John M. Graham, ’74 LAS, MFA ’76; W. Eric Graham, ’78 BUS; Ronald P. Graham, ’79 BUS; Angela Graham, ’83 LAS, MS ’84 IS; and Linda Graham, ’81 FAA, MFA ’82. (Other U of I attendees in the family tree include Graham’s late mother, Helen Corbin Emly, and late sister, Barbara Emly Jordan, ’48 ACES.)

Early on, Graham says, she assumed that, like her sister Barbara, she’d go to the U of I after graduating Uni. She got engaged instead. “This was very common of that era,” she says. “I have a lot of friends who got married early.” From there, all she had to do was raise six kids and get her degree. With, apparently, help from angels.