When Dean Mary Francis England offered Nancy McKinnis the Linden counselor position 39 years ago, McKinnis told England she would have “to take some time to think about it.”
As an unemployed 22-year-old graduate of St. Mary’s College near Notre Dame, McKinnis had returned to her home in Pittsburgh after spending the summer working with a small group of classmates and Holy Cross Sisters teaching catechism to children in six isolated villages in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of Mexico.
At that time, it was her dream to continue that work of serving the poor. But her father, wisely, told her that the students at Culver may need her, too. “I know poor people who are very happy and some wealthy individuals who are most unhappy,” he told her. “Try it. If you do not like it, you do not have to stay.”
That was the start of McKinnis’ career at Culver Academies, she told the students of CGA and other audience members at the Dean England Day observance Sunday evening. She arrived in October, 1980, replacing a counselor who resigned in late August. England was taking her time finding the right replacement and Sister Margareta at St. Mary’s had recommended McKinnis.
It was CGA’s 10-year anniversary, McKinnis said, and the prefect system was established and made way for the beginning formation of girls’ leadership training. England was committed to making every resource available to every girl so “she may find her voice through the joys of reading, learning, and leading.” McKinnis explained that England knew the CGA community would thrive when “individuals grow.”
England rose to the rank of lieutenant with the Waves during World War II; spent seven years in Japan as part of the U.S. occupation after the war; then moved with her husband, Maj. Sydney M. England, to his native Australia for 11 years. After his death in 1962, she moved back to Culver with her son Robert ’71, to be an English instructor. Her father, Col. William J. O’Callaghan, had served as the band director at CMA. Her mother, Grace, and sister, Esther, still lived here.
As the founder of the girls school, McKinnis said England had clear expectations for her staff. She challenged them to be critical thinkers and remember the first idea was not the last. She believed in the “capacity of every girl’s ability to find her voice and her place in whatever area of life she would choose to pursue at a time when most did not,” McKinnis added. She not only wanted the girls to be given permission to have dreams “but even more, they are given permission to pursue them.”
She continually reminded her staff and the girls of CGA to hold dear the ideals of service. She shared Gen. Leigh R. Gignilliat’s values on that subject: “You do the greatest good to the world when you live in it to serve your fellowman, your fellow women.”
“This is not easy. This is only right,” McKinnis said. “This is what character looks like and what I learned from Dean Mary Frances England.”