By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – With tears in her eyes, Eileen Carpenter started her acceptance speech with an emotional message.
“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that your wildest dreams won’t come true.”
In a room filled with friends, family and University of Nebraska at Kearney dignitaries, Carpenter’s dream came true Friday when she was awarded an honorary doctorate in recognition of her philanthropic contributions and support of UNK.
Because of Carpenter and her husband Keith, countless UNK students are also able to pursue their dream of achieving higher education.
“You’ve fulfilled that dream for so many people, and that dream is going to be fulfilled for years and years to come thanks to you and thanks to Keith,” UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen said when awarding the Doctor of Humane Letters degree during a ceremony in the Nebraskan Student Union Antelope Room.
As a young woman, Carpenter dreamed of earning a college degree and starting a career in the “big city.” She grew up on a farm northwest of Lexington with wonderful parents, but the family was “very poor” financially.
After high school, she worked at Lexington Mill and Elevator Company for two years to earn enough money to attend UNK, known then as the Nebraska State Teachers College at Kearney.
“Education was important for both of us because we knew that’s how you got ahead – you got an education,” Carpenter said in a video tribute played during Friday’s event. Her mother and Keith’s mother were both schoolteachers.
The first in her family to go to college, Carpenter enrolled in 1960 to study home economics and business. She worked hard, but was forced to leave school after two years because she couldn’t afford to continue. Carpenter never finished her degree.
“I know there are a lot of kids in that same position, and we want to help them,” she said in the video.
In spite of those humble beginnings, Carpenter and her husband, a Lexington native and 1961 UNK graduate, have been highly successful. She owned and operated a court reporting agency for nearly 30 years and continues to work as a licensed real estate broker and owner of Eileen’s Homes. A remarkable seamstress, Carpenter also designs and creates custom dresses and suits and offers other sewing services through another business, AAA Creations by Eileen.
The couple currently lives in Parker, Colorado.
Although they don’t have any children of their own, the Carpenters have made a tremendous impact on many young adults. Their gifts in support of UNK student scholarships exceed $3 million and their stated future commitments go well beyond that figure.
Kristensen said the Carpenters are more than UNK supporters. They’ve become family.
“We want to make sure that you’re included forever in the UNK family,” he said before presenting the college degree Carpenter didn’t receive six decades ago.
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Charlie Bicak called Carpenter and her husband tremendously generous and committed friends of UNK and its students.
“She knows there are many students who stand in the same shoes she wore, not able to complete their college degrees because of family financial circumstances,” Bicak said. “She wants to help them, and together with her husband she does. Enthusiastically and generously she does, with the expected return on investment being simply to know that she’s made a difference, that she’s made a positive impact on the lives of students.”
When asked how giving back to UNK makes the couple feel, Carpenter responded: “It just warms your heart. It just makes you feel good. I don’t know how else to say it.”
PHOTOS BY TODD GOTTULA, UNK COMMUNICATIONS