When weather conditions forced Knox’s 2019 Commencement Ceremony into the Fieldhouse, Director of Government and Community Relations Karrie Heartlein faced a problem: how to preserve the tradition of opening the ceremony with a bell ringing if it wasn’t taking place in front of Old Main.
“We found a bell, and when it was time to ring the bell, I stood behind a curtain, and rang the bell,” Heartlein said. “So we still had that moment — that celebration, that ceremony that is part of how we celebrate commencement.”
Last year’s commencement was among the fondly remembered moments Heartlein has been reflecting on as she looks toward retirement after over 20 years at Knox, during which she has filled many roles at the school.
Heartlein’s first job at Knox was teaching English in a part-time position, a transition from her past work in communications at an accounting firm, which allowed her to balance work with raising multiple small children.
In 2000, after Heartlein’s children got older, she took up a position that opened up as Knox’s Director of Publication Relations. However, it was in 2012 when she was chosen to head the newly created department of Government & Community Relations that Heartlein felt she found the perfect match for her passions and skills.
Heartlein’s responsibilties as director of her department are far-ranging, from keeping up with legislation that can impact Knox such as the status of the Illinois MAP grant, to finding ways that Knox can create connections with the local community.
“All colleges have some engagement with the community, but it’s important to remember Knox and Galesburg were founded together. They are siblings in some respects,” Heartlein said.
Heartlein has enjoyed the opportunities she has gotten to work with Knox’s students over the years, from seeing light bulbs go off in students’ heads when teaching them, to watching them gain confidence while doing volunteer work.
Heartlein sees a process many students go through, from beginning with short term volunteer work to increasingly wanting to get more involved.
“They say ‘I really want to make a difference, I really want to get involved in and kind of dig in,’ and so they apply to the Knox Corps program,” Heartlein said.
Knox Corps, which allows students to join the staff of local non-profits, is among the projects Heartlein is most proud of. From its beginning in 2012, Heartlein believes it has allowed students to make a difference and develop as professionals.
Heartlein also has the large duty of overseeing the annual commencement ceremony, in the lead up to which she said she is a major presence in seniors’ email inboxes.
“It’s watching all of this work come together in a moment that for everybody else, it’s just their moment (…) but there was a lot that went into that to make that happen,” she said.
Her involvement in commencement has led to fun moments for Heartlein, interacting with the notable speakers Knox has brought in over the years.
In 2006, comedian Stephen Colbert gave the address. The following year when Bill Clinton was announced as commencement speaker, Colbert threatened on his show to burn his Knox diploma if they gave “slick Willy” the same honor.
“We said, ‘Challenge accepted. Let’s do something with this,’” Heartlein said. “So we actually came up with a steel diploma. It looks just like the real thing on the front side.”
Heartlein said she enjoyed having a back and forth with Colbert and his representative, to prepare the gag of providing Colbert with the fake diploma he would then fail to burn on-air.
Heartlein sees this year’s commencement as a wind down, in which she will ease the transition by training someone else to take over the work after her retirement.
On her phone, Heartlein has begun forming a bucket list of plans for retirement. They include travel, doing some teaching and writing, learning to play the piano and training to be a disaster responder.
In the next few months before her retirement, however, one of Heartlein’s prominent duties will be making sure students are registered before the Illinois Primary on March 17.
“I think students don’t always hear this message. Students get the opportunity to choose where they want to vote (…) they get to make that decision. And really no one else gets to choose,” she said.
She encouraged students from other states to be strategic on where they register to vote, and if they are registering with their Knox address, to make sure they use the one for their specific residence hall.
Heartlein — who has lived in Galesburg for 23 years with her husband — has also played a role in the community outside her work at Knox with the “Galesburg on Track” Heart and Soul program and serving on the Board of Directors for the Chamber of Commerce and Cottage Hospital.
While she will no longer be representing Knox, Heartlein intends to continue being an active participant in the community.
“We really feel rooted in Galesburg. We feel like this is our home. And we’re going to be here for a long while,” Heartlein said.