Karen Kenny: They Can’t Take That Away from Me

By Sally Anne Flecker | Fall 2015

When chemical engineer Karen Kenny (EMBA '08) took early retirement during a company reorganization seven years ago, she was not at a loss for how to proceed in this new phase of her life. First, she enrolled at Notre Dame, where she earned her EMBA in 2008. Then it was on to the University of Chicago for a Master of Liberal Arts. After Kenny and her husband moved to the Twin Cities several years back, she decided it was time to make good on an old promise.

In her younger days she had enjoyed playing clarinet in marching band and oboe in concert band and orchestra. She’d always intended to pick up an instrument again when she had the time. What she couldn’t know, when she registered at MacPhail Center for Music in Minneapolis as a beginning cello student last year, was that her new challenge would entail so much more than learning the fingerings and bowings of a stringed instrument.

The warmth of the atmosphere at MacPhail drew Kenny in. She liked the people she met at the Center, delighted in her lessons, savored moments listening as others practiced for their own lessons. Her own mission to serve and the sense that she would be with like-minded people led her to join MacPhail’s volunteer program.

But when the specific volunteer assignment was presented to Kenny, she hesitated.
The Giving Voices Chorus is a weekly program for men and women — and their caretakers — who are living with Alzheimer’s disease. Kenny had lost both her mother and her father-in-law to dementia. That heartache was still close at hand. Despite her concerns, though, she promised to at least observe a session. Such was the palpable sense of joy and friendliness there that a mere five minutes after she walked into the room, she was ready to sign on the dotted line.

Now she spends Wednesday mornings helping Diane, a former Sister of Notre Dame, keep her place in the music. Diane has a little trouble with motor skills. Sometimes finding the right words is elusive. She had no problem expressing herself when she was first introduced to Kenny, though. “These are the happiest two hours of my week,” Diane told her. It’s a very happy time for Kenny as well. The sadness she had worried she would feel is relegated to the wish that her mother and father-in-law could have taken part in such a program.

If the wishes of the program’s founders come true, Giving Voices may expand to other cities. Kenny hopes to use her past business experiences as well as the project management, strategy development and operational development skills she honed as an EMBA student to help in the next phase of development. “I don’t know what the future will hold for me, but I sure would like to have this established across the U.S. for people like me who don’t know what their prognosis will be as we age. Maybe my daughter in Houston can take me — or my husband — to choir. There’s so much heartache with this disease, it’s nice to see some very happy moments — and memories.”