Although born in Connellsville, Pa., on Dec. 28, 1937, if five previous generations of your family are from Columbiana County, Jerry McKenna certainly qualifies as a native son of the pottery city.
It was through his great-, great-, great-, great-, great-grandfather, James S. Figgins, who served in the Revolutionary War under Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, the individual for whom Steubenville is named, that a five-generation McKenna lineage began in the Upper Ohio Valley when Figgins married Mary Self. From that union a son, John Figgins, was born, later marrying Nancy Wollam, who gave birth to a daughter, Isabella, in 1840.
It would be Isabella that brought the McKenna name into the family when she married Patrick McKenna (1842-1904), a native of Columbiana County, eventually producing a son, Charles McKenna, a potter born in Salineville, marrying Irish-born Julia Hickey at St. Aloysius Church in East Liverpool in 1903. Curiously enough, Julia’s father, Timothy Hickey, once operated a tavern in the Jethro Hollow section of East Liverpool, undoubtedly selling fine Irish Whisky.
While working at Homer Laughlin China in Newell, Charles and Julia produced a son, Paul, who married Eleanor Dowling of Connellsville, Pa., in 1932.
To this marriage, a daughter, Eleanor Marie, was born, along with a son, Jerry McKenna, who we honor this evening.
A 1956 graduate of St. Edward High School in Lakewood, Jerry McKenna has fond memories of spending summers in East Liverpool at the home of his grandmother on Thompson Ave.
He also enjoyed time at Rock Springs Park, softball games at the Y-Vodrey lot and the Thompson Park swimming pool while staying in Calcutta with his grandfather’s brother, Frank McKenna, also a potter and one-time custodian of the IBOP Hall on West Sixth Street.
Following high school, it was off to the American Academy of Art in Chicago for Jerry and then the University of Notre Dame, where he received a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1962.
The multi-talented McKenna then spent 26 years and nine months in the United States Air Force, retiring as a lieutenant colonel having served, virtually, around the world.
His military decorations and awards -- including the Bronze Star Medal -- are countless, as are the numerous sculptures he has created after discovering a hidden talent for the art form that has propelled him to world fame following his retirement from the military.
He has created over 250 sculptures in museums, universities, churches, halls of fame, ball parks, public building and private collections around the world. McKenna’s subjects have included Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Bob Hope, General Jimmy Doolittle, Tony Dorsett and the Buffalo Sabres’ famous forward line – “French Connection”. His sculptures of the Fighting Irish national championship coaches – including one of Lou Holtz – stand at each gate outside Notre Dame Stadium.
In 2003, the All-American Football Foundation named him America’s top sports sculptor and, in 2013, the NCAA named his “Four Horsemen” as the best statue in college football (His “Ara Parseghian” came in fifth.) Jerry’s most recent honor came in Ireland, where he was named Chieftain of the worldwide Clan McKenna, the first American to hold that title. On Sept. 7, the Knute Rockne Memorial Society will present McKenna with the 2018 Knute Rockne Heritage Award in recognition of the seven sculptures he has created to memorialize the great coach.
His most recent sculptures are a seven-foot bronze of St. Andre Bessette, CSC for Holy Cross College at Notre Dame and a six-foot sculpture of his fellow inductee, the late Calvin Jones, for Steubenville Stadium.
Married to the former Gail Thomas of Hammond, Ind., the couple has five children: Colleen, Michael, Patrick, Sean and Daniel, along with eleven grandchildren.