Sorority mourns loss of 90-year-old member

Dream Fulfilled Bertie McConnell went to Washburn in 1940 but left school before she could join Zeta Tau Alpha. Last fall she was finally inducted. She died Feb. 12, 2012.

Michael Vander Linden / Washburn Review

Bertie McConnell, turning 90 years old this year, always had one dream she had never been capable of doing; she wanted to become a member of Zeta Tau Alpha at Washburn University.

After attending Washburn for one year in 1940, she was able to experience the ZTA lifestyle. However, she did not get the opportunity to join as World War II began shortly after. Instead of finishing college, McConnell made her way to the front of the work force.

As McConnell grew older and soon had kids, she had one connection to Washburn University that stayed with her. Her daughter, Judy McConnell-Farmer, became a professor of education at Washburn.

McConnell-Farmer, knowing of her mother’s lifelong dream, went above and beyond to make McConnell’s 90th birthday a special one. After completely decorating her birthday in a ZTA theme, she told her students the story so they, too, would never give up on their dreams.

However, one ZTA in the audience suggested that McConnell-Farmer contact the ZTA house to get a birthday card.

However, McConnell did not just get a birthday card, but instead got a pledge card, presented by then ZTA president Paige Martin, to become the newest member of Washburn’s ZTA sorority.

“Dreams get lost this day in age,” said Martin. “Fulfilling this sweet dream and giving her no regrets is the least we could have done.”

The story reached the media and took off. Within two days after her birthday, McConnell’s story had 300 mentions in McConnell-Farmer’s email. The bigger surprise was when talk host Anderson Cooper called and wanted to do a story on her.

“It’s been such an incredible opportunity for my mother,” said McConnell-Farmer. “She started in a one room schoolhouse and ended in national prominence.”

Unfortunately, on Feb. 12 of this year, McConnell passed away.

“It’s an extremely sad time for me,” said McConnell-Farmer. “But I know she received the best passage ever.”

The response to McConnell’s death was extraordinary. ZTA members from across the nation showed up to stay for the memorial services. Even two or three national officers showed up. Anderson Cooper sent a huge display of flowers for the funeral. Hundreds of emails came through to McConnell-Farmer.

“I just began to realize the impact that my mother had on everyone,” said McConnell-Farmer. “People were making connections with their mothers they had not talked to in a while, all from a lady they didn’t even know about one year ago.”

Martin agreed. She remembered all of the “thanks you’s” and humbleness McConnell showed to everyone. However, Martin realized that McConnell made a greater impression on them than they on her.

ZTA members came together to be there for McConnell and her family as the memorial services occurred. Every member of the sorority attended the visitation. Not only did they attend, but McConnell-Farmer said the fact that it meant a lot that they stayed.

Also, Martin, current ZTA president, Kasha Coch and Maddie Mae Martin, the student who heard McConnell-Farmer tell the story for the first time, spoke at the funeral for the eulogy.

“We’d heard things from Judy’s eulogy that we never knew about McConnell,” said Martin. “It just confirmed the fact that McConnell lived her entire life living the ZTA way.”

McConnell-Farmer continuously showed her thankfulness to the ZTA girls for everything they had done. From the first idea of the birthday card to the cards she still gets from each individual at the house, she realized they would forever be in her heart.

“Thank you for giving my mother the best experience,” said McConnell-Farmer. “It was the best of departures and it was all made possible by you.”

One thing all parties remember were the funny comments McConnell would always make. These included things like comparing the ZTA house and girls from 70 years ago to now.

“They must have redecorated since I came here last,” said McConnell. “The girls were so sweet 70 years ago, and they still are today.”

McConnell did not keep anything secret, even when it came to Cooper. When they were off air, she voiced her concern for his safety.

“I worry about you in those war zones,” said McConnell. “You need to stay out of them. But, I bet you won’t listen to me even though you are my favorite TV guy.”

A personal conversation between McConnell-Farmer and her mother left an impression that the professor still remembers.

“When she was still pretty healthy, I asked her if she was afraid to die,” said McConnell-Farmer. “She answered simply with ‘No, I’m just going to miss what I’m going to miss.'”

What McConnell-Farmer hopes everyone gets out of this is how delightful her mother was. From her one-of-a-kind smile to her witty comments, McConnell was a person to remember and her story was, as well.

“I also hope it shows that no one ever gives up on their dreams,” said McConnell-Farmer. “You never know when they’ll come true.”

McConnell will be remembered by many at Washburn.  A scholarship program has been established in McConnell’s memory where any ZTA member majoring in early childhood education can apply.

“My mother not only gave me life,” said McConnell-Farmer. “She showed me every day how to live one. I love her and will miss her.”