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Team effort

A scholarship created 20 years ago by Kirby Puckett and Tonya Puckett Miller continues to inspire recipients to give back to their communities

By Amy Sitze

Keon Blasingame, ’02 B.S., ’05 M.A., was having a tough time with calculus. As an architecture major who’d loved building things since he was a child, he was thriving in most of his coursework, but he just couldn’t wrap his head around calculus. And as a recipient of the Puckett Scholarship, established by Twins baseball legend Kirby Puckett and his wife, now Tonya Puckett Miller, he felt extra pressure to live up to the family’s faith in him.

“I was at the worst point in my college career,” Blasingame says. “I was afraid I was going to lose my scholarship.”

Keon Blasingame

But at one of the many Puckett Scholar get-togethers at which the couple got to know their scholarship recipients, Kirby pulled him aside. “I don’t know how he knew about it, but he said, ‘You know, you have adversity in life. You have to cross that bridge, and you’ll do it. Don’t worry about it. Just believe in yourself,’” Blasingame recalls. “Coming from anybody, that would be great, but coming from him, considering what he’d been through in his life, it was awesome.”

Not only did Blasingame pass calculus, but he also went on to get a master’s degree in architecture and fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming an architect—he’s a project manager at LSE Architects Inc. in Minneapolis, specializing in designing schools. And as the Puckett Scholarship program celebrates its 20th anniversary, he’s part of a group of more than 80 people who can say their lives were changed by a simple idea: that none of us achieves our dreams alone.

Go back and give back

From the earliest days, says Puckett Miller, a guiding principle behind the scholarship—which was established with the dual goal of giving high-achieving students of color an opportunity to attend college and increasing diversity on the Twin Cities campus—has been encouraging recipients to give back. “I know that someone helped me along the way, and Kirby would give credit to many people for helping him along the way,” she says. “You don’t ever want to forget where you came from, and you don’t want to forget that we’re all connected.”

It’s a lesson that former Puckett Scholar Sara Hollie, ’04 B.A., ’06 M.P.H, has taken to heart. As the state adolescent health coordinator at the Minnesota Department of Health, she uses her public health expertise and knowledge to give back to her community as a volunteer at radio station KMOJ. Every Wednesday evening, she co-hosts the “Know Your Options” show, which raises awareness of government agency and social service programs.

“I’m from north Minneapolis, KMOJ is located in north Minneapolis, and the reach we have to communities of color and beyond is so important,” she says. “That was the ongoing message we heard from Kirby and Tonya: you have this scholarship, you have this opportunity, so make sure that when you succeed, go back to your community and give back.”

Hollie says the financial support she received from the Puckett Scholarship was extremely important. Her mother was a widow at the time, and affording college would have been a struggle without it. But even more important was the way the scholarship was set up to provide emotional and academic support. Each scholar was mentored by program staff and faculty, there were regular gatherings where scholars got together and built a sense of community, and—most important— the Puckett family was a real and regular presence in their lives.

“They honestly cared,” she says. “We didn’t feel like this was just a donor-scholar relationship. It was about pushing young people to be at their best.”

Celebrating community

That support went both ways. Many of the students stayed in touch after they graduated; Puckett Miller says many of them still have her phone number and email address.

In fact, shortly after Kirby Puckett died unexpectedly on March 6, 2006, after suffering a stroke at age 45, Hollie was at Puckett Miller’s doorstep with a card signed by scholarship recipients, letters they had written to the Puckett children, and a big hug. “That was very touching,” says Puckett Miller. “How many people could say that type of thing happens with one of the young people they provided a scholarship for?”

As a 20-year reunion approaches in June to celebrate the scholarship’s impact on the careers and lives of students—many of whom, like Blasingame and Hollie, now have children of their own—Puckett Miller says it was impossible to imagine, two decades ago, how many lives the scholarship would touch.

“I know Kirby would be elated to see all that has happened in this program,” she says. “Of all the organizations we were involved with and all the places we gave to, this was number one.”