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EDUCATION

Watch now: Rend Lake College honors 'Mr. A'

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Mr. A — Gene Alexander of Benton — is a retired school teacher and principal. All Franklin County high school graduates who attend Rend Lake College receive support from scholarship he has started. During "Mr. A Appreciation Day," the college and students said thank you. Prior to a lunch in his honor, he had the opportunity to talk with the scholarship recipients.

Surrounded by his students – more than 50 Rend Lake College students from Franklin County, all recipients of scholarships he funded – Gene Alexander admired the red bucket caps, the smiles and words of thanks that came his way Wednesday. It was “Mr. A Appreciation Day” at Rend Lake College and he was the guest of honor.

Long known as simply Mr. A, Alexander has had a heart for area students for most of his 86 years. Even though he retired as a teacher and principal in 1990, he is still a fixture at Benton schools where he volunteers. His passion for education and for young people inspired him to start a variety of support for Franklin County students, including scholarships for area students at Rend Lake College.

Mr A Gene Alexander

Gene Alexander, better known as "Mr. A," shares life experiences and gives advice to students Wednesday at Rend Lake College. The students -- each wearing an iconic bucket hat like those preferred by Mr. A -- all are recipients of scholarships started by the retired educator.

“Mr. A has helped so many students, not just at Rend Lake, but other places, too,” explained Kelsey Jane Page, assistant director of the Rend Lake College Foundation. “He’s 86 years old, but still he goes into Benton Grade School every day where he reads to the first and second graders, he helped build the library in Benton, he helped with our Slankard Learning Resource Center and he’s helped well over 350 students with a scholarship every year.”

Kelsey said is so enamored with helping students that he recently endowed scholarship funds specifically for those students now in first and second grade.

“He says he’s not going to be here when they come to college, but he wants to help them,” she said.

Mr. A Appreciation Day included a proclamation from the college, a complimentary lunch for Alexander and scholarship recipients as well as a time for Mr. A to share advice and wisdom. He said he is humbled by all of the attention.

“I think a lot of times we don’t realize how important what we do is,” he said. “Sometimes I have a hard time taking all of this seriously – people are honoring me for what I enjoy doing anyway. I’m just glad I am able to do it.”

Alexander, who also gained unwanted attention as the volunteer painter of large-scale national maps on playgrounds throughout the region – more than 380 in all – said all that he does is just an effort to make his community and the world a better place.

“I have always just looked around and tried to find what I could to be a blessing,” he said. “I am always thinking, now what can I do to help everybody around me have a better life?”

Rend Lake College President called Alexander an example of the “pay it forward” concept.

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“I think he epitomizes the concept of giving back and looking to the future. Instead of doing things for himself, he’s taking care of these students and the next generation that’s coming,” he said.

Alexander said he remembers the challenges of education and hopes to make things easier for students.

“I had a hard time getting my education,” he recalled. “I realize that there are a lot of people who have a part-time job and with some help from their parents and a scholarship, they can make it a year or two here. I want to help. It’s a good feeling to get these people started. It means a lot to me to realize that I’m making a difference in people’s lives. That’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Page said Alexander’s gifts to the college for scholarships are in excess of $200,000.

“He always tells me that he wants to make sure students from Franklin County have options,” she said. “He loves education and he loves his community.”

“When my life is over, I want to know that I have given it my best shot and done the very best I’ve known to do,” he said.

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