Pat Kee follows family encouragement, retires after hometown lifetime at NIU

Pat Kee
Pat Kee

Pat Kee was born and raised in DeKalb, just like her parents and their parents before them.

“My mother’s side of the family lived in town. My dad’s side of the family lived in Pierce Township and owned a farm. All the generations lived in DeKalb or DeKalb County. I was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in DeKalb, which no longer exists,” says Kee, who retired July 31 from the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations.

“Right before high school, my dad moved us out to the farm, which I really liked,” Kee adds. “We had a DeKalb address and a DeKalb phone number, but we were in the Hinckley School District. Every time I tried to call one of my friends, it was long-distance!”

While still in town, Kee’s family lived in a home on Lincoln Highway directly across from the East Lagoon near the bridge, where they loved to watch the festive parades go by.

During NIU Homecoming, “they would put the judging stand and bleachers across the street, and there were beautiful, elaborate floats made by the different sororities, fraternities and organizations – some with moving parts,” she says. “It was wonderful.”

Her family rented rooms in the house to NIU students, “like many other families on our block and in town,” and Kee and her siblings were invited to tag along with those Huskies: “We thought that was cool.”

And when her aunt worked as a residence hall adviser in Stevenson Towers, Kee and her sisters sometimes would spend the night there, meeting and hanging out with Huskies a few years older than the sibling trio.

“I feel like I’ve grown up with NIU,” says Kee, a 1977 graduate of Hinckley High School. “It’s going to be weird because I live in Rochelle now, so coming to work is the main reason I come to DeKalb.”

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Pat Kee with daughter Rachel and granddaughter, Maddie.

Yet this town, this campus and, most of all, the instincts of her loving heart have always had an undeniable pull on her.

During her sophomore year at Marquette University, where she was studying journalism at the alma mater of her father and oldest sister, Kee’s uncle died from cancer. “I was pretty upset, so I came home,” she says, “and I didn’t end up going back right away, which is a danger.”

Kee soon met the man here who would become her husband; a few years later, in 1985, Kee took her first job at NIU, working as a secretary for the Holmes Student Center’s hotel operation. After four years, however, an ailing grandfather and aunt became a greater priority.

“Some of my older family members were starting to get sick, and so I left to take care of them,” she says. “My sisters had both moved out of DeKalb – they had ventured far away – and I was the only one who stayed here, and I’m kind of the caretaker person.”

Her subsequent returns to NIU, interrupted first by the birth of a son and, later, the need to care for her father before he died in 1997, took her to administrative assistant roles for Health Enhancement, Counseling and Student Development and in the office of former catalog editor Kay Van Mol.

On the interview circuit for her final tenure, in 1998, Kee discovered an open position in the NIU College of Education teeming with her deeply held value of “home.”

“I got an interview in C-and-I with Carol Boyer,” Kee says. “I went into her office, and she was someone who liked to decorate and have all kinds of doilies and knickknacks. It smelled like apple pie to me, and because I kind of take to being in the country, said, ‘Oh, this smells like home!’ I ended up working in C-and-I in Gabel Hall.”

Pat Kee and NIU President Lisa C. Freeman
Pat Kee and NIU President Lisa C. Freeman

When the department reorganized, it moved to the 223 side of Graham Hall.

Laughter across the corridor in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations – the laughter of Wilma Miranda, specifically – eventually drew Kee to her current gig when it became available.

“It seemed like a big family and sounded like so much fun,” she says. “I really like my department, and I’m going to miss that.”

During her years as a “jack of all trades” in LEPF, and in adherence to the purple sticky note in her office with a smiley face and the important word “flexibility” on it, Kee worked for five different department chairs and managed scheduling, personnel and budget matters.

For a while, she also took on various roles for the department’s “Thresholds in Education” journal, serving as assistant executive editor, treasurer and secretary.

NIU’s Operating Staff Council named Kee as one of the four recipients of its the 2019 Outstanding Service Awards. Nominators praised her work at the university along with her volunteer service for needy families in the community through organizing coat drives, promoting toy drives, baking Christmas cookies and helping the Huskie Food Pantry.

On campus, she has served on Administrative Professionals Advisory Council since 2007.

Kee also fulfilled her father’s wish by earning a bachelor’s degree in Applied Behavioral Sciences from National Louis University in 2007.

Colleagues who park outside the field house across from Graham Hall also became familiar with her car, a florescent green Ford Fiesta with the license plate “KEE LIME.” She bought the vehicle – and applied for the fun vanity plate – after hearing from mechanics that her beloved Volkswagen Jetta was beyond repair.

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Pat Kee and her son, Colin.

“I was super-sad. I saw this car advertised, and thought, ‘Oh, that looks happy. That looks like a happy car. If I have to have a new car, I might as well have a happy car.’ I went and purchased it,” Kee says, “and when they asked me about my plates – key lime pie does happen to be my favorite – I was trying to cheer myself up, and now I’ve got this bright green car, so it all made sense to me.”

Retirement also makes sense.

Now a grandmother – her daughter, Rachel, is the mother of an 18-month old girl, and oldest son James is stepfather to children ages 6 and 12 – Kee has no real plans for the future yet.

Tasks at the Rochelle home she shares with longtime fiancée Dave, who works for BP in Naperville, will occupy her for a while.

“We live in a big, four-bedroom house, and Dave and I don’t need four bedrooms anymore,” she says. “Our basement is finished, but I can’t tell you the last time I went down in the basement. From taking care of everyone, I inherited all kinds of family stuff, and there are boxes in the basement that haven’t been opened since 2005.”

Open hours to explore those boxes, and maybe to pack up and move somewhere smaller, are just what Rachel, James and brother Colin want for their mom.

“It is easier for me to take care of other people than it is myself. I talked about retirement with my family, and my sons, especially, said, ‘Mom, you’re always taking care of everyone else,’ and I said, ‘Well, that’s easier for me,’ ” she says.

“They said, ‘Well, don’t you think that it’s time you take care of yourself and do something for yourself and find what makes you happy before you’re too old or get sick?’ They kept talking to me about it, and I guess it made sense,” she adds. “It took me a long time because I really love my department chair, I love my faculty and I love my job.”

Happy Retirement! Pat Kee (center) with, from left, baby Maddie; son, James; daughter, Rachel; fiancée Dave, granddaughter, Ella-Grace; and James’ wife, Ashley.
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