The Rend Lake College community lost one of its most impactful leaders Thursday. Mark S. Kern, the longest-serving president in Rend Lake College’s history, passed away March 8, 2018.
“Mark always was an adamant supporter of Rend Lake College. In all his years as an instructor, a dean and as President, every decision he made was for the good of this college,” said RLC President Terry Wilkerson. “There is no doubt that this place would look much different without Mark’s leadership and contributions.”
“The RLC Foundation is deeply saddened to say goodbye to one of our strongest supporters,” said RLC Foundation CEO Kay Zibby-Damron. “Mark Kern remained actively involved on the Foundation Board of Directors after his retirement, which is a testament to his love and passion for Rend Lake College, our community and education. Mark was instrumental in many of the Foundation’s greatest accomplishments and we will be forever grateful for his leadership and support. Our hearts are with Pat and the Kern family during this very difficult time.”
Kern, as a Ewing native, was a home-grown leader who often remarked on his good fortune. “You have to be fortunate to become a community college President, and becoming one in the area in which you grew up is even more special,” he once said. He served as RLC’s president, fifth in its history, from 1991 through 2008.
Visitation will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday, March 12, at Whittington Baptist Church. Service will be at 1 p.m. with burial immediately following at Oak Hill Cemetery. Cory Garmane, an RLC alum, will sing songs to open and close the service, and State Rep. Dave Severin, Franklin County Circuit Clerk Jim Muir, and RLC Foundation Board Member Sam Mateer are scheduled to speak. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Rend Lake College Foundation Mark S. Kern Memorial Fund to assist Rend Lake College students.
A local farmer at heart, Kern got his start in college teaching at Wabash Valley College in Mt. Carmel in 1967, the same year Mt. Vernon Community College became Rend Lake College. It was merely a year later that he returned home to start RLC’s agriculture program, for which the college has been well known over the years.
Add that year to the 39 he ultimately spent with RLC, and Kern spent 40 years of his working life in the Illinois Community College System – longer than any employee in the history of the system, according to the Illinois Community College Trustees Association at the time.
Kern later became chair of the Agriculture, Automotive and Architecture Department, commonly called Triple-A, before becoming Dean of Community Services and later Dean of Instruction. He became RLC’s fifth president in 1991.
Education was an important part of Kern’s life. He earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Agricultural Industries at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and later a Master of Science Degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of Illinois. After graduation, he had plans to go into ag banking when the Wabash Valley job opened up, and he threw his hat in that ring. As they say, the rest is history.
Kern left an indelible mark on RLC. Some highlights and accomplishments include:
- Construction of the RLC Foundation Children’s Center
- Renovation of the Dr. Allen Y. Baker Administration Building
- Construction of the Clock Tower, the centerpiece of campus which now serves as the model for the college logo
- Creation of the RLC Murphy-Wall Pinckneyville Campus, with help from the RLC Foundation and the citizens of Pinckneyville
- Creation of the one-of-a-kind RLC MarketPlace in Mt. Vernon, which transformed a dying outdoor mall into a workable mix of retail stores, a restaurant, educational training facilities, classrooms and computer labs, Project CHILD, and the state’s One-Stop Center, among others
- Dual credit opportunities which have become overwhelmingly popular with high school students desiring to get a head start on college credits and save in-district parents millions of dollars.
- The Hitting Zone and Sports Center, now combined into The Rec
- Construction of the Coal Mine Training Center
Perhaps the most visible tribute to his legacy is the 22,300-square-foot Applied Science Center, which now carries his name in honor of his service. It is safe to say that this building, which houses the Agriculture Business, Agricultural Production and Mechanics, Diesel Technology and Heavy Equipment Technology, was close to the heart of the local farmboy.
Kern was responsible for initiating the first Advisory Council and on-job training programs, both of which are still in existence for almost all career-technical programs. He also led the college through multiple reaccreditation visits from the Higher Learning Commission.
As president and after he retired, Kern was a dedicated member of the Rend Lake College Foundation. After retirement, he was named an emeritus member of the RLC Foundation Board of Directors. Kern’s wife Pat served as CEO of that organization for many years. The Foundation awards hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in student scholarship and also supports various types of projects which advance the college.
Some of his honors include:
- Induction into the RLC Sports Hall of Fame class of 2008 for his support of Warrior athletics
- Franklin County 4-H “Outstanding Alumnus” and Franklin County Soil Conservation “Farmer of the Year”
- One of three Illinoisans selected for the Cooperative Extension Cow Tour in 1987
- 2001 Statewide Commercial Producers Award
- Past Vice President and Secretary of the Illinois Council of Community College Administrators
- Past member of the Benton Consolidated High School Board of Education
- Kern farmed in partnership with his father, Frank, for many years, and later owned and operated a 660-acre farm with 100 head of beef cows
“I really believe the community college system has been the most exciting and most productive area of education during the last 40-plus years. I have been fortunate to have spent 40 years in that system. I have made friends with many fine people, including staff, Board members, Foundation Board members and other key people in the community,” Kern said upon his retirement.
Kern is survived by his wife Pat; children Frank, Eric, Brian, Jason and Megan; and Pat’s daughter Melissa. Mark and Pat have eight grandchildren.