Keokuk woman becomes 17th member of family to graduate from Western Illinois University

WIU graduates

Recent Western Illinois University graduate Tessie Morton, right, and her mother, Sherry Morton. | Photo courtesy of Western Illinois University

MACOMB, Ill. – When Tessie Morton of Keokuk, Iowa, crossed the commencement stage at Western Illinois University last 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, Texas, who didn’t walk in her own 1989 ceremony because she was a pregnant mother with two children while her husband, 1987 WIU graduate John Morton, was 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.

Tessie’s parents were first-generation college students and 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,” Tessie said. “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 a mother to Tessie and her sister, Chelsie Williams, a 2010 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, came back to school to finish bachelor’s degrees shortly after their children graduated. The 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 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 are:

  • John’s brother David Morton (2001 bachelor’s degree in history);
  • John’s sister-in-law 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);
  • Gribler’s son, Kenny Felts (2006 bachelor’s degree in history);
  • Gribler’s daughter-in-law Oresta Felts (2006 master’s degree in communication);
  • Gribler’s daughter, Sarah Kramer (2008 bachelor’s degree in marketing);
  • 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);
  • Jennifer Brinkschroeder (2010 bachelor’s degree in accountancy).

It was Christmas 2021 when John mentioned he wished his wife would have taken 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 was named the Public Health Departmental Scholar for the fall commencement ceremony. She will begin studying for her master’s degree in public health from WIU in the fall.

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