Redbird legacy: Alumna follows in footsteps of great-grandmother
Laura Simonton is a two-time alum of Illinois State University. She graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in history and then earned another bachelor’s in 2011 in history education.
She traces her interest to Illinois State back to an inspiring figure in her family history: her great-grandmother, Laura Jean O’Connell Carney, for whom she is named. Simonton, known as Laura Morrical in her days on campus, said that in addition to sharing first names and alma maters, they also pursued similar degrees and professions. Despite the fact that they walked the Quad nearly a century apart, they share a connection to Illinois State.
“Although we never met—she passed in 1971, and I was born in 1974—we both knew from an early age we wanted to be educators,” Simonton said, adding that one of great-grandmother Laura’s most cherished possessions in her life was her teaching license.
Born in 1893, Laura Jean O’Connell came to Illinois State Normal University to pursue her teaching degree. On July 1, 1914, she received her second-grade elementary teacher’s certificate from McLean County. Every year after that, while she was teaching, her certificate was stamped and initialed on the back by the county superintendent of schools. She taught in McLean, Ford and Kankakee counties into the 1930s.
Simonton recently found a book that contained her great-grandmother’s street address during her time in Normal.
“The house was there when I first began at ISU but has since been torn down and made into apartments,” Simonton said. “It was interesting to find this link that we lived off campus within a block of each other, although 80 years apart.”
Simonton works as a teacher’s aide with the Olympia Community Unit School District 16 in Stanford and is also the Olympia South Spartan Garden Club supervisor. In between her and her great-grandmother’s eras are additional family connections. Two more great-grandchildren and Simonton’s cousins also attended Illinois State.
Siblings Aimee Jones Luedtke ’05 was an accounting major, and Tim Jones ’98 studied business. The cousins are Peggy Chace Rieke ’87, who earned a degree in elementary education, and Ron Gillis ’08. He studied mass communications.
Beyond the alumni connections are Ron’s parents, Phyllis and Bill Gillis, who both retired from careers working in the physical plant at Illinois State.
In the 1920s, Laura O’Connell became Mrs. Bernard Carney and gave birth to two daughters. But she kept on teaching, and she and her husband made sure their two girls went to college. That’s a family tradition that started at Illinois State more than a century ago. It continues today for Laura Morrical Simonton, her husband Tony and their three kids.
In fact, Simonton said, “My oldest is thinking of attending ISU.”