Family, UK alumni miss commencement 50 years apart

When Makayla Willhoite left for Sweden during her final semester at UK earlier this year, she had no idea how quickly her world was about to turn upside down.

She also never knew her grandfather, Jim McClanahan, went through something similar 50 years ago. Both alumni missed out on their graduation ceremonies, but for very different reasons.

McClanahan was part of the UK Class of 1970, which saw its commencement cancelled by campus protests resulting in the burning down of the AFROTC Building.

Willhoite, a member of the Class of 2020, had only been in Stockholm, Sweden, for two

70 20 pic 2
Jim McClanahan and his granddaughter, Makayla Willhoite, each missed their UK commencements 50 years apart under different circumstances.

weeks doing her student teaching when the pandemic hit. She never saw the Lexington campus again after the COVID-19 pandemic “shut” UK in March.

“She was more upset to miss it than I was,” says McClanahan, who earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from UK. “When I graduated, I was married and working a lot, and it wasn’t a big deal. I had already accepted a position in Texas and was going to work on my master’s degree, so I had a whole lot going on. I let her know even without a ceremony, she was still going to graduate and hopefully work on her master’s.”

Willhoite, whose mother is 1997 UK graduate April McClanahan Cooper, says she knew for a year that she was going to study abroad.

“The College of Education was offering a program where you spent half the semester in Fayette County and half abroad. I was in Sweden for two weeks, and I was supposed to be there until two days before graduation,” says Willhoite, who earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education in May. “I was more worried about getting sick coming home on the plane with all those people getting back to the U.S.

“It was just so sad. You look forward to graduating for four years.”

Willhoite, who hopes to get a job teaching this fall, says she had other friends who were studying abroad and had to get back home quickly. They all had to self-quarantine for two weeks upon returning to the United States, so there wasn’t even a real chance to commiserate together. She finished the year helping with online instruction at Glendover Elementary in Lexington.

While she was going through this experience, Willhoite found out her grandfather went through a similar experience.

McClananhan was married his junior year of college, was working, and did not get caught up in the social and political unrest on campus. But he says you couldn’t avoid seeing it.

“Just going into the engineering building every day — there was a lot of turmoil. You could tell a lot was going on. After they burned the AFROTC building down, it really didn’t surprise me they cancelled graduation,” he says.

McClanahan went on to earn a master’s degree in engineering from Texas A&M University and an MBA from Xavier University in Cincinnati.

“We actually had services I was able to participate in. In Texas, it was just my wife. But in Cincinnati, wife and mom and dad and friends were there,” he says.

McClanahan worked for IBM (later Lexmark) for 26 years before retiring. He was also a magistrate on the Scott County Fiscal Court, worked on the family farm and did some teaching. He later worked in energy management for Scott County Public Schools in Georgetown and eventually began assisting other school districts. He now runs an energy management consulting firm.

He had comforting words for his disappointed granddaughter, telling her about his experience not “walking” and helping her realize this was not the worst thing that could happen.

“It really helped,” Willhoite says. “I had no idea that he went through the same thing until he started talking to me about it. It’s interesting and kind of crazy because both events fell on years we graduated. It was kind of shocking because I didn’t know that had happened. It’s nice to have that shared experience to compare and hear about.”

—  Story by Hal Morris

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