The beginning of the summer marked the death of a highly regarded Maine Business School (MBS) professor. Shawn McKenna, 61, died on June 1 following a lifelong battle with cancer. He was born in Bath, Maine, where he met his wife, Debra Colby.
McKenna attended the University of Maine from 1974 to 1978, and joined the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, where he eventually became the Alpha chapter’s president. He was offered a job at the fraternity’s headquarters in Richmond, Va. as a Regional Director in 1977 and worked there until 1982. Among other boards and committees, McKenna served more than 30 years on the National Housing Corporation as a Managing Director. The majority of his initiatives focused on improving the quality of life and quality of brotherhood.
He began working for Procter and Gamble as a Sales and Interim Brand Manager, where he wrote “The Complete Guide to Regional Marketing.” Other early ventures included The Moscow Beach Club, Uncle Gilly’s Steak House and opening an American-style diner in Moscow, Russia. This diner saw great success in Moscow as the locals loved the American-style atmosphere. McKenna shortly opened the diner series in other emerging markets, such as Cypress and South Africa.
Shortly after defeating cancer for the first time in 2013, he began as an adjunct professor and lecturer at the University of Maine. A passion of McKenna’s was leadership and “creating your brand,” a focus of his leadership classes. This quickly grew into a minor in the MBS. In 2015, he was offered a full-time Executive-in-Residence position teaching marketing and leadership. He also started a “train-the-trainer” course of study for two adjunct professors in the Leadership program.
Ivan Manev, Dean of MBS and a professor of Management, met McKenna on the Advisory Board for the MBS. “Shawn was a wonderful colleague and is missed by everyone in the Maine Business School. He always met people with a smile and optimism. His energy and care for people were clearly evident. We all knew that he was battling a dangerous kind of cancer, but he was persevering through therapies and pain. He was a fighter: he lived his life to the fullest to the end.”
Fourth-year Marketing and Finance double major Sean Donovan took Marketing with McKenna. “Shawn was an inspiration to many, always painting the picture to exactly what was expected for the class… he was a man who demonstrated great stewardship and true character.”
McKenna also did work with small Maine businesses on the side. He was passionate about building up brands and making his own success. He served on the MBS Advisory Board and was an incorporation member at the UMO Foundation.
He is remembered dearly by faculty and past students. Dr. Niclas Erhardt, Associate Dean and professor in Management in the MBS, taught similar topics in leadership as McKenna. “Shawn was a mentor for me. A great dynamic leader, colleague, and friend with endless energy and vision of possibilities. Best quote: ‘I’m not here to catch you losing, I’m here to catch you winning.’”
In McKenna’s leadership classes, he focused largely on a project called “Your Personal Brand.” Topics in the courses included creating goals and implementation methods, motivation and how to catch people winning, among other topics. On RateMyProfessor.com, McKenna is rated as a five-star professor. Tags include “inspirational”, “respected”, “amazing lectures”, “caring”, “hilarious” and “gives good feedback”. Students made comments such as, “Tremendous guy, take his 290 class,” “Shawn is a great professor and is very passionate about teaching. He’s one of the best professors I have ever had and is also very approachable,” “FAVORITE PROFESSOR EVER. Shawn is an absolute rockstar. He is such an inspirational man, he doesn’t teach for the paycheck but because he loves his students. Participation is key in his class, but it’s so fun you actually want to participate. He aims to ‘catch you winning’ and he would do absolutely anything for his students,” and “Hands down the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
Dr. Matt Graham, an assistant professor of Management Information Systems, worked closely with McKenna during their time together in the MBS. “Shawn and I shared many jokes together as we passed each other in the halls of the MBS. He always said I was Superman and he was Batman. Two heroes on the same mission to help students not only achieve in our classrooms but also in life. Shawn was a guy who always said, while grades mattered, they in themselves were not the most important thing about a college education. Shawn felt that students also needed to ‘find themselves’ and learn how to also negotiate the people and the world around them in a positive way. I always admired that in him. To modify a famous saying slightly; He could always, as they say, ‘see the trees through the forest.’ He wasn’t only teaching to the class, he taught to each individual and students loved him for that.”
Manev remembered one memory in specific, his “favorite Shawn moment.”
“Once I was in Boston for an event and he and I decided that we would meet and discuss our plans for a leadership program and also talk about current events at the university. He came with his travel bag straight from the airport where he arrived from Moscow. In half an hour, we met to talk about our ideas, and then we went to dinner with two other people. After such a long day (you travel across 9 time zones “with the sun”), one is usually completely worn out — but not him. It was as if he hadn’t traveled at all: his energy was striking.”
McKenna will be remembered by MBS as an amazing and inspirational professor and person, and will be missed dearly.