GRADUATES: Make Their Mark - Allie Poehler '12
"He read my resume and saw my senior thesis project and said, 'We want you to come
to Los Alamos and teach us about algae.' It was so exciting. They didn't know much
about algae when I got there so I got to do all the background research ... "
To fully appreciate the journey of McKendree University senior Allison “Allie” Poehler, one first must appreciate the legacy of Mary Spalding Hayden, a Class of 1958 graduate who died before Allie was born. A scholarship that bears her name honors the former educator’s giving spirit and the many lives she has touched.
“My grandmother lived her whole life in Clay County,” said Ginny Melvin-Wagner, the donor who established the Mary Spalding Hayden Memorial Scholarship. “She was a sixth grade teacher and later a principal in the small town of Flora, Illinois.”
An independent, single working mother supporting herself and her young son, Mary - who divorced her first husband in 1929 - was an exception among the women of her generation.
“She was considered the matriarch of many things in Flora,” her granddaughter said. “She was involved in the church and so many clubs and organizations.”
She also taught most of the town’s residents - including Allie’s father, Rick Poehler, whom she instructed in elementary school. “My father was young when he had her, so he didn’t remember many details,” Allie said.
But many other former students did.
“When she died, the receiving line was out the door and around the block,” Melvin-Wagner said, remembering Mary’s funeral. “It was cold that day but people stood there and told me so many stories of her goodness. One of her former students told me that my grandmother noticed he was going hungry at lunch time. She found out his family was hurting. And she saw to it that they got food.”
Another story concerned a child who had been abused. “My grandmother somehow found out about it. That was back when there were no organizations to protect children. She didn’t let that stop her. She found a way to step in and help him.”
Two years ago, Melvin-Wagner told her own daughters about the great-grandmother they had never met.
“We were on our way to the airport after visiting family,” recalled Melvin-Wagner, who now lives in Indiana. “We stopped at the McKendree campus because that’s where my grandma had gone to school. I told my daughter, ‘She got a college degree back when most women didn’t go to school.’”
It was then that the idea for the scholarship took root. At first Melvin-Wagner wanted the recipient to be a single mother from Clay County who was studying education. Eligibility eventually was broadened to be “a female from Clay County, Illinois.”
And that’s where Allie Poehler comes in.
“I’m from a very small town of a thousand people,” said Allie, a senior from Louisville, in Clay County. “It’s in the middle of nowhere.”
Allie’s dreams stretched farther than her surroundings.
“I wanted to be in the fashion industry for a really long time. I wanted to move to New York and have a career there. But then, they hired a new science teacher at my high school. I took genetics. And I loved it. I took zoology. And I loved it.”
Allie enrolled as a biology pre-med major at McKendree and began researching algae cells and lipid extraction in the science lab. She was chosen to be the first recipient of the Mary Spalding Hayden Memorial Scholarship.
“At McKendree, when you receive a scholarship, you write a thank you note to the donor,” Allie explained. “The donor was Ginny Melvin, who created the scholarship in honor of her grandmother. So I wrote her a note.”
Ginny Melvin-Wagner contacted Allie in return.
“She worked in security at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico,” Allie recalled. “She told me she had some friends in the biology department and asked if I would be interested in doing a summer internship there. Of course, I said, ‘Yes.’”
Allie’s senior thesis examined the use of algae as a biofuel, a new area of research being studied by one of the National Laboratory’s top scientists. Allie would be a valuable addition to the lab.
“He read my resume and saw my senior thesis project and said, ‘We want you to come to Los Alamos and teach us about algae,’” Allie said, proudly. “It was so exciting. They didn’t know much about algae when I got there so I got to do all the background research.
“I gave presentations. I got to go into the lab and conduct experiments. At most similar labs, a student like me would be washing glassware during an internship. But they gave me a great opportunity to do research.”
A project Allie came up with at the lab will go to post-doctoral study and she is writing a review paper about her findings to submit to a scientific journal. She has also been offered a one-year appointment at LANL after she graduates from McKendree this spring. The opportunity “changed my life,” Allie said.
“I’ve always been a believer that one thing hinges on another thing,” Ginny Melvin-Wagner said. “If Allie hadn’t written me a thank you note after receiving the scholarship, I wouldn’t have told her about LANL. Who knows? Maybe her working at the lab will one day result in Allie finding an alternative biofuel.”
The donor and the student met face to face at a party given by a mutual acquaintance in New Mexico. “It was just a coincidence how we crossed each other’s paths,” Melvin-Wagner said. “She is exactly who my grandmother would have picked for this scholarship. She is the type of young woman my grandmother would have mentored. I know they would have liked each other had they ever met. And I know my grandmother would have been proud.”
Allie’s story is still being written. Mary Spalding Hayden’s spirit lives on in her success.