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One of reporter Katy Macek's favorite stories she wrote for the Spectator, UW-Eau Claire's student newspaper.

Last week I had the good fortune of talking to a UW-Eau Claire music composition alumni who has had success composing and orchestrating music for major films in Los Angeles — not a task for the faint of heart. 

While I was blown away by the tremendously hard work Mark McKenzie has seen pay off since he graduated in 1979, what really stuck out to me was how connected he remains to his roots. The four-year college was just the beginning of his education that included studying at University of Southern California — where he received his doctorate in composition and broke onto the scene with his first opportunity: A film with Steven Spielberg.

Yet the first thing he mentioned in our phone interview was how grateful he was to his UW-Eau Claire music professors, who helped create a music theory and composition major for him to follow his passion.

“The professors in Eau Claire are devoted to their students in a way that is unusual,” McKenzie said.

To repay them and the entire music department, McKenzie set up an endowment fund named after professor emerita Ivar Lunde, Michael Cunningham and David Baker — who all taught McKenzie as a student.

I spoke with Marcia Van Beek, retired director of gifts for the UW-Eau Claire Foundation, who helped set up McKenzie’s fund, and she expressed similar sentiments about him.

“It really validates the specialness of UW-Eau Claire,” Van Beek said. “Many of the alums I’ve talked to throughout my career have had a very significant relationship with a professor who has mentored them.”

Writing this story gave me time to reflect on my time as a journalism student at UW-Eau Claire and the opportunities I received while there. Where would I be without Judy Gatlin, the retired communication and journalism department’s academic associate? She was the one who showed me how many scholarships are available to journalism students, leading me to apply for and receive two of them.

Gatlin introduced me to UW-Eau Claire’s student newspaper, the Spectator, where I spent four semesters as part of a team putting out the student’s leading news source. My time there is the sole motivator for me to continue a journalism career, and that little office in Hibbard Hall is where my writing, reporting and editing skills were tested and honed.

Nights spent on deadline until midnight were stressful but worthwhile experiences that showed me the reality and satisfaction of getting the job done right. I learned which topics I didn’t enjoy covering and which I did, ultimately leading me to the culture and entertainment writing I enjoy and am fortunate enough to still do today.

And of course, Gatlin’s work combined with that of professors Jan Larson and Michael Dorsher provided me the once-in-a-lifetime, unforgettable opportunity to practice my journalism skills in the “real world” while studying abroad for a summer in southern France.

Those memories have shaped and formed me into the journalist I am today, not to mention the countless stories I was able to tell. Writing McKenzie’s story gave me a new lens into UW-Eau Claire’s music department, but also brought me back to my own time at the university not long ago.

I don’t yet know what kind of success I’m going to find as a writer, but McKenzie has taught me how to remain humble when I do.

Contact reporter: 715-833-9214, katy.macek@ecpc.com, @KatherineMacek on Twitter