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Alumni Who Had Helping Hand Reach Back To Offer One

Karen (Clark) Brenot '01

November 2013 | by Susan Flansburg

Stan Coin '51 rose to shake hands with a guest. It was a simple act, yet one that Coin waited years to be able to accomplish. In fact, he spent a large part of his boyhood unable to stand or walk. Osteomyelitis struck him at seven years of age.

He didn't walk again until he returned to school, on crutches, in the 10th grade. Missing ball games, parties and other adventures, Coin learned instead to read novels carefully thanks to a devoted private teacher, to tell great stories and to value the kind of hard work he longed to be able to do.

Today a successful banker, Coin not only has overcome his hard start, but now is reaching back to help those who, like him, just need a helping hand.

Like so many others who endow scholarships at St. Ambrose or plan to, Stan Coin is extending that helping hand through higher education.

"I was trained to share what I had," Coin said from the other side of his massive desk at American Bank and Trust. Retired from his position as chairman of the board, he now works "only 40 hours a week." He's proud of his experience, which includes a stint following his graduation from SAU as president of his family's bakery in downtown Rock Island.

"My family had a rule at the bakery," he said. "If anyone came in and was hungry, you had to give them a loaf of bread. We gave away a lot of bread."

But, he added, "I'm not too enthused about just giving free meals. My wife and I believe if you only give a man a fish, you give him a meal. But if you teach him to fish, you give him a livelihood. He can feed his family."

Coin has made a provision through his estate to endow a scholarship to St. Ambrose for future business majors in need. It is a way, the Coins believe, to teach those students how to "fish."

Like Coin, Karen (Clark) Brenot '01, DO, credits some of her success to the generosity of others. Today a Quad City physician—she practices in obstetrics and gynecology at UnityPoint Clinic—Brenot also is reaching back to help SAU students.

Why? Because she needed the help herself.

Brenot grew up near Knoxville, Iowa, in a close-knit family that ate, worked and played together. Few school friends lived nearby. So the Clarks made their own fun, riding bikes near their rural Iowa home, pulling weeds in the huge vegetable garden, piling into the family car for Mass on Sundays and enjoying brunch afterward. Brenot's love of science was beginning to grow, too, and she looked for any chance to learn more.

SAU's excellent science department was replete with a cadaver lab ("nobody else had one.") It filled the bill for this budding doctor, but not without help.

"I couldn't have attended St. Ambrose without a scholarship," she said. "And I worked three jobs."

Despite long hours working at three different jobs, Brenot couldn't afford as a student to accompany her classmates on a study abroad trip to Italy led by Rev. Robert "Bud" Grant '80, PhD.

Through the Center for the Study of Saint Ambrose of Milan, the annual trip later became the focus of an endowment gift made by Brenot and her husband, Matt, along with four fellow St. Ambrose graduates-Dorothy Anello '02, Deanna Bott '01, Ted Stephens III '01, '04 and Matt Ehlman '02.

"We didn't think it was right that only wealthy kids could go on that amazing trip," Brenot said of the adventure she and Matt finally experienced as adults in 2011. "I learned more about my faith in those two weeks than I had in my entire life. We wanted to make sure other kids could do the same thing."

Craig '98 MBA and Debbie Mrkvicka also were born into families that valued hard work. Taking full-time jobs in their hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, as soon as they could-Debbie right out of high school, Craig after earning a two-year associate degree in engineering technology-the young people followed their expectations, if not their hearts.

That would change when Debbie and Craig met 15 years later and discovered love—for each other, for academia and for the children they would mentor.

"We were non-traditional students," Debbie said. They also were the first in their families to earn four-year degrees. Although Craig completed his bachelor's degree at 37 shortly before the couple met, Debbie earned hers at their kitchen table.

As she studied there, Craig decided he wanted to study for yet another degree.

"Dr. John Collis accepted me as an MBA student," Craig said. "He was very encouraging and welcoming. He was very respectful of me and my time. It broadened my world. It got me out of the engineering box. It built my confidence."

Ultimately, it pushed him to leave an industry that never captured his heart.

"That MBA changed the course of my life," Craig said. "St. Ambrose made me feel I could be a leader. I retired from engineering and have been blossoming ever since."

Today, the Mrkvickas both teach at Kirkwood Community College. They sponsor five international children, helping rescue them from lives of poverty. They work with students who need extra help learning communications skills. And through their estate, they will provide an endowed St. Ambrose scholarship to help the non-traditional students they themselves once were.

"Life has been rough for so many people," Debbie said. "If we have a chance to change one student's life, we want to try. Sometimes it's a word of encouragement. Sometimes it's financial. We feel so tremendously blessed to be able to help."

Lisa and David Bluder '93 MBA remember the generosity of others as being key to their connection to St. Ambrose and, ultimately, their success. To begin with, they needed help getting the job in 1984 that would launch Lisa into her current position as head women's basketball coach for the University of Iowa.

It was a tough order. Dave was already employed at Davenport Bank and Trust, but Lisa couldn't get so much as an interview in her field. Although she had experience as a player-she was a three-year starter at the University of Northern

Iowa-the new graduate had no experience as a coach. And that was the job she wanted. She just needed someone to take a chance on her.

"I had applied at all the area schools," Lisa remembered. "Nobody even replied to my applications. Then I found out that the head coach had resigned at the last minute from St. Ambrose. I sent off my resume and had interviews with Jim Fox and Ed Rogalski, who was vice president at the time. They hired me even though I was unproven. They took a risk on me, oh yeah."

Today, the Bluders take risks on other unproven students by way of their endowed scholarship for women basketball students who show leadership skills.

"We've set some parameters for the endowment, but we typically don't know the students who receive it," said Lisa, who also has made provisions with her husband for an endowment gift through their estate. "That's part of the joy of giving back. Taking a risk on someone who needs the help without knowing who they are or vice versa. Just giving for the joy of giving."

The Coins, Brenots, Mrkvickas and Bluders surely embody the Ambrosian values of academic excellence and social justice for all. They also provide an example for generations to come: despite-or perhaps because of-the challenges they faced as young people, they are reaching back to lend a hand up to others.

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