When recent Western Illinois University alumna Tessie Morton, of Keokuk, IA, crossed the commencement stage over the weekend, she became the 17th member of her family to graduate from Western.
As her name was called during one of two undergraduate ceremonies, Tessie was joined on stage by her mother, Sherry Morton, of Lucas, TX, who was unable to walk in her own 1989 ceremony due to being a pregnant young mother with two children, with her husband, 1987 WIU graduate John Morton, deployed as a Marine.
The joint graduation was made possible after faculty and administrators from WIU's College of Education and Human Services heard about the Morton family's legacy with the University. Special permission was granted for the mother and daughter to cross the stage together this spring.
Tessie's parents were first generation college students and were the first two members of the family to become WIU alumni. The pair met while John was attending WIU, and he convinced Sherry to begin her degree as well.
"My dad was out of the Marines and started school at Western," said Tessie. "My mom was best friends with his sister, and the first time she met him she said she knew she would marry him one day."
Tessie said John was attracted to study at WIU because he had family in Hancock County and because of WIU's strong connection to the Marine Corps and use of the Leatherneck name.
When the couple met, Sherry was already mom to Tessie and her sister, Chelsie Williams, a 2010 History graduate. John adopted the two girls after the couple married, and the family lived in the former East Village while he finished school. Tessie began kindergarten in Macomb.
Both John's mother, Carolyn Sharpe, and Sherry's mother, the late Georgia Tripp, both of Warsaw, IL, came back to school to finish bachelor's degrees in education and social work respectively, shortly after their children graduated.
The two women carpooled to Macomb for classes. Tripp graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in Social Work and Sharpe received bachelor’s degrees in History and Social Work in 1991.
Tessie said her grandmother, Sharpe, did not realize how many WIU graduates there were in the family until recently.
Tripp was the daughter of American Indian parents who worked on migrant farms in California and Arizona.
"It wasn't until my grandmother passed away that I even knew she graduated from college," said Tessie.
Other WIU graduates in the family include John's brother and sister-in-law David (2001 bachelor's degree in History) and Brenda Morton (2022 bachelor's degree in Anthropology); John's sister, Laura Lisa Anderson (1992 degrees in Social Work and Law Enforcement and Justice Administration); Tessie's aunt, Susan Gribler (1998 bachelor's degree in Clinical Laboratory Science); Miller's son and daughter-in-law, Kenny (2006 bachelor's degree in History) and Oresta Felts (2006 master's degree in Communication), who met at WIU; Miller's daughter, Sarah Kramer (2008 bachelor's degree in Marketing); and three more relatives, Brent Tripp (2011 bachelor's degree in Engineering Technology and 2013 master's degree in Engineering Technology); Henry Branham (2014 bachelor's degree in Engineering Technology); and Jennifer Brinkschroeder (2010 Bachelor's degree in Accountancy).
It was Christmas 2021 when John mentioned he wished his wife would have been able to take part in her graduation ceremony in 1989. That was when the idea for the pair to walk together was born. Tessie said her mother was initially reluctant to join her on stage during the ceremony because she did not want to take away from her daughter's special day.
"She didn't want it to be about her," Tessie said of her mother. "Before I went back to school, I was working for them. I went through COVID, and the death of a friend and I will forever be grateful for their support."
Tessie ordered her mom a duplicate cap and gown and decorated both caps for the ceremony.
In recent weeks, Tessie took her niece and nephews on a tour of the WIU campus in hopes they continue the family's alumni tradition.
Tessie has been named the Public Health Departmental Scholar for the fall commencement ceremony. This fall, Tessie will begin studying for her master’s degree in public health from WIU.