ISU scholarship keeps woman’s memory alive — Janitor makes $1,500
SAYBROOK – From sweeping and mopping to cleaning bathrooms, Don Wallen has spent nearly a quarter-century maintaining buildings on the campus of Illinois State University.
Now, he’s determined to maintain the memory of his late wife, who was part of the same ISU cleanup crew for 16 years before losing a battle with leukemia last summer.
Her legacy will be three Charlena Wallen scholarships, started by her husband to keep her name alive at the university that brought them together.
“When I heard about this, it touched me very deeply,” said ISU spokesman Jay Groves. “It’s a wonderful gift, and the reason behind it is very heartfelt.”
Wallen said he is humbled by the attention that followed his $1,500 donation, which will provide $500 scholarships next spring in the geography-geology, biological sciences and health sciences departments.
“It’s something I think she would have been very happy with and I’m proud of doing. I never dreamed it would get the attention it seems to be getting,” he said.
The gift has become a case study heralded by ISU in its first- ever comprehensive fundraising campaign, which has reached $60 million toward its $88 million goal.
“These are the kind of gifts that really make you proud,” said Larry Morlan, ISU’s assistant vice president and executive director of development.
Campus response to the donation also has proved therapeutic for Wallen, who said the support has helped him through the rocky months since his 51-year-old wife’s death.
“I always dreaded going to work. But since all of this, my whole attitude toward life has changed. I don’t dread work because it was my salvation. If I hadn’t had my work to go to and get my mind off of things at home, I’d have been loony,” said Wallen, 50.
The couple first crossed paths more than 25 years ago, when Charlena, known as Schonnie, moved to Saybrook, a town of about 700 east of Bloomington. At the time, she was married to her first husband.
“I knew of her, but I didn’t really know her,” said Wallen, a lifelong resident of the small farming town.
Her marriage ended in divorce, and Schonnie moved to Bloomington, landing a job cleaning dormitories at ISU.
Wallen already worked there, but it was still several years before they finally connected when both took leadership positions with the union that represents ISU’s 250 building service workers.
A lifelong bachelor, Wallen acknowledged that he had to adjust when the two married in 1993. He was a pack rat, and his new wife considered cleaning more than just a way to earn a paycheck.
“She was a meticulous – absolutely meticulous – housekeeper. I could not walk out that door with a wrinkle in a pair of pants,” Wallen said.
Schonnie’s greatest joy was her three grown children and six grandchildren, Wallen said. Her daughters were nearby, Becky Knerr in Chenoa and Brooke Hutchcraft on ISU’s janitorial staff.
Her son, Brian Prosser, spent six years in the military, and Wallen said his wife was thrilled when he moved back to central Illinois last March.
“She was really looking forward to having all of her kids together for the holidays this year for the first time in six years,” Wallen said.
But the leukemia that Schonnie called a “bump in the road” when she was diagnosed in September 2001 derailed the family’s Christmas reunion, Wallen said.
The disease had been in remission, and Schonnie was getting ready to go back to work when the cancer returned last April, Wallen said. She died in July, after another round of aggressive chemotherapy.
“She never cried until she lost her hair for the third time. I never saw her buckle. She never complained. She’s tougher than I am,” Wallen said.
Wallen hopes to make annual donations to continue the scholarships and said ISU has been contacted by donors who want to add to the fund.
“I just think this is something that she would react to just like her kids are reacting to it,” he said. “They just think this is the neatest thing because it’s something that keeps their mom’s name alive.”
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