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Mary MacKinnon Leaves an Ageless Legacy in the Gerontology Institute

The lengthy list of endowed scholarships at Georgia State reads like a who’s who of distinguished alumni, beloved professors, and loyal friends of the university.

It’s rarer for administrative professionals to be honored in such a way, but for the late Mary MacKinnon, it makes perfect sense. Co-workers, program alumni and even former directors agree that almost nobody can match the impact MacKinnon made on the lives and careers of students at Georgia State’s Gerontology Institute.

“Mary treated it like her home,” says Frank Whittington, Ph.D., who joined the institute shortly after its founding and served as its director from 1995 to 2008. “By that I mean she was very much a home-centered, family-centered person … a deeply caring and nurturing person, and the door to her office was always open to anybody, especially students.”

When MacKinnon retired in 2010, and again when she passed away in 2013, grateful colleagues, alumni and students honored her with gifts to the institute. Last year, her three children created the Mary M. MacKinnon Endowed Scholarship in Gerontology as a way for such gifts to carry their mother’s legacy of caring and advocacy. The scholarship supports undergraduate and graduate students alike who share MacKinnon’s passions for caring for the aged and seeking out ways to make their later years healthy, comfortable and joyful.

Sharing in a Loved One’s Struggle

For MacKinnon, those passions were born from a deeply personal mission: trying to find proper help and care for her own mother, who was battling Alzheimer’s disease. In 2015, with the Baby Boom generation settling into old age, such services are becoming more common with each passing day, but in the late 1970s, help was much harder to find.

“My grandfather died when I was 8, and at that point I believe they knew that my grandmother had some dementia issues,” remembers Katherine MacKinnon, Mary’s eldest daughter. “Because my grandfather had Parkinson’s, there was regular nursing care at their home in South Carolina, but that stopped when he died. It was apparent that my grandmother couldn’t continue there on her own, so [Mary]and her sister traded off having my grandmother in their homes for the next couple of years.”

Katherine’s grandmother moved to an Atlanta apartment where she had a live-in companion, and finally to the Wesley Woods senior living facility. “It was a very stressful time — she was at a stage in the Alzheimer’s where she was very oppositional and very distressed at unfamiliar locations, so it was very stressful for us to visit,” Katherine says. “My mother tried to oversee her care as much as possible, and it was very hard for her to manage children who were upset to be there.”

It was also hard to find help or even basic information, says daughter Virginia MacKinnon. “Even with a background in nursing, she still just didn’t know what to do. She had some contacts, but that was about it.”

Finding Answers — and a Life’s Calling

Fortunately, one of those contacts directed her to the Gerontology Institute at Georgia State, which was only a few years old. Mary enrolled as a student in 1978.

Whittington, then a junior faculty member, says MacKinnon began her studies at a very opportune time. “For several years she learned a huge amount about the community and the services that were being developed during that time,” he explains. “We didn’t always have a wide array of services in the community for seniors, certainly not the assisted-living facilities that you see around town today, and even many of the nursing homes were small and kind of poor quality — it was pretty bleak.

“She learned as the field was developing and she got to know the people who were doing it. And this became very valuable down the road for us as we designed our program and wanted to help our students find internships and then jobs.”

MacKinnon proved to be a quick study. Almost as soon as she earned her gerontology certificate in 1980, the Gerontology Institute’s founding director, Barbara Payne, recruited her to advise students and help supervise internships on a part-time basis. And just a few years later, MacKinnon was promoted to full-time director of field placement.

Raising three kids, caring for an ailing mother, and working full-time made for a hectic atmosphere in the MacKinnon household. “I started having to do dinners twice a week,” Katherine remembers with a smile. “I was 14 and I wasn’t really wild about that.”

“She taught us all how to cook,” adds son Luther MacKinnon. “At a pretty early age, too, at least for me.”

“You were making scrambled eggs at age 4 or 5 and pancakes by age 6, and I think we were all doing our own laundry by about age 12,” Katherine says.

“Mom actually considered going on for a doctorate in nursing. I asked her one time why she didn’t, and she said she felt like she was too old to be a woman in the job market with a doctorate. And she felt like she was doing good work where she was. I think at heart she was always an academic, and working at the gerontology center, she was able to nurture students in a role that was as close to that as she was going to get.”

The Face of a Department

Even without a doctorate, Mary MacKinnon made a lasting impact at the Gerontology Institute — particularly for its students, says Chivon Mingo, who entered the institute as a psychology major in 2002. By then, MacKinnon was assistant director for student affairs, having been appointed by Whittington shortly after he became director.

“Mary definitely played a key role in helping me basically ‘find myself’ and carve out my career in gerontology,” Mingo says. “I had decided pretty much on a whim that I wanted to go to graduate school. I was a good student, but I really had no plans for what was next. Mary really helped me and talked with me about my interests and what I wanted to do.”

MacKinnon guided Mingo on the lengthy process of taking the GRE, writing a personal statement and applying to graduate schools. That help paid off: Mingo got into her top-choice master’s program and stayed on to earn a Ph.D., and then did a postdoctoral fellowship in North Carolina.

In 2012, Mingo returned to Georgia State, this time as an assistant professor of gerontology. And though MacKinnon was retired by then, her mentorship was still benefiting Mingo’s career. “She helped me secure an internship with what is now the Division of Aging Services, and I still have relationships with the individuals I worked with during that time,” Mingo says. “That’s been really exciting, to still have connections in that network that Mary really fostered and helped me cultivate. I’ve always been grateful for that.”

Whittington says he can’t count the number of people whom MacKinnon helped with equal care and determination. “She was exactly who the gerontology center, and then later the institute, needed during that 30-year span,” he says. “I just can’t imagine that we would have developed as well as we did, or would be the program that we are today, if it had not been for her. A lot of people contributed, it was a team effort for all those years, but through all of them, Mary was the constant, the person that people always thought of when they thought of the gerontology center.”

That was a common sentiment among those who attended a reception this past spring at which the second MacKinnon Endowed Scholarship was presented to senior Marlena Collins. Because their mother was such a modest individual, MacKinnon’s children say they’re still finding out things they never knew about how deeply Mary touched both Georgia State and Atlanta as a whole.

“I noticed it at her funeral, too, all the people from work who stood up and spoke, and that blew me away,” Katherine MacKinnon says. “I feel like, for the most part, it’s ‘home people’ at funerals, it’s not work people. But clearly she meant something to them beyond just being someone they saw at the office.”

The whole family is proud to see the scholarship continue Mary’s legacy of generosity and compassion, says Luther MacKinnon, who works with adults with developmental disabilities. “When people talk about how hard that work must be, I just feel like it’s a natural thing because of the values she instilled in me,” he says. “The things that were strongest with her were her sense of community and her willingness to give back to that community. That was instrumental to everything she did.”

 

Photo (left-right): Luther, Katherine and Virginia MacKinnon; in front (next to photo of Mary MacKinnon) is Virginia’s daughter, Vivi Eades.

To contribute to the MacKinnon Scholarship endowment or get more information, visit the Gerontology Institute’s giving page (gerontology.gsu.edu/giving) or contact Hope M. Carter, senior director of development for the College of Arts and Sciences, at hopecarter8@gsu.edu.