ROLLING MEADOWS, Ill. – It’s yet another day in which hopes of a mother are once again realized by the sheer presence of people that made their way inside the fieldhouse on a fall Sunday.
The Halloween holiday brought out a few more costumes than usual at the 2021 event, but there are always a few shirts that feature the name of the person that this 5K run/walk is named after at Rolling Meadows High School.
For Cindy McNamara, it’s the fitting tribute.
“She was always special to us,” said McNamara of her daughter Shannon while watching the event go off in the northwest suburb on October 31, 2021. “Now we know how special for the people that love her.”
But there is another tradition that is continuing for Shannon McNamara over 20 years after her death on June 12, 2001, when she was murdered by Anthony Mertz in her apartment in Charleston while a student at Eastern Illinois University.
There are a group of people who are getting to learn about McNamara who never once met her, but the characteristics which she displayed during her life have encouraged them to get to know her.
“More people that have just heard of her, not just knew her, but that heard of her, and they come back to see what this is all about,” said McNamara, and that was the goal of the founders of the 5K in her honor in Rolling Meadows.
Shortly after Shannon’s death in 2001, high school teachers Jim Voyles and Paul Carlino looked to establish a scholarship in McNamara’s honor at the school. To fund it, they decided to hold a run/walk, since the alum was an athlete in her time at Rolling Meadows High School.
“Her (Cindy McNamara) number one fear was that Shannon would be forgotten,” said Voyles, who is now the athletic director at the school. “I told myself I could do something about that.”
So that fall the first annual race was run and has continued every year since, even during the pandemic 2020, traditionally going off towards the end of October. With that, a scholarship continues to be awarded in McNamara’s honor at the school that is given to a senior each year that demonstrates the most commitment to sports, fellow students, and family while also displaying a positive attitude.
The scholarship began with three recipients in 2002 and has continued annually ever since.
“In 21 years since she lost her life, her stories are the same, but it’s how people tell them, it’s how people reflect upon them that matter, and her life and her legacy,” said Voyles. “She’s done more to have an effect on people not being here than most people have who are here.
“That’s pretty impressive.”
So is the impact that McNamara has had outside of Rolling Meadows High School and the community, including Eastern Illinois University as a scholarship in her honor was also given. But another connection to the school has created an even greater legacy for McNamara, and that comes from Shannon’s friend Erin Weed.
Shortly after her murder, she created “Girls Fight Back,” an organization that teaches women self-defense and violence prevention techniques. Weed was inspired to create it because of her own desire to get training following her friend’s death.
“The more I learned, the more I was like ‘I could be teaching this,'” said Weed. “Because young women, who are the highest risk groups – 16-to-22 age group – they would take it so much better from someone like me.”
The effort has been more than successful, with over one million women along with men being taught self-defense techniques thanks to “Girls Fight Back.” The name itself is a tribute to McNamara’s legacy as well since it was discovered that she’d fought her attacker in the final moments of her life.
“I say she’s a heroine,” said Weed of McNamara. “I say she probably saved countless people’s lives by the choices that she made that night. I say the world was so much better with her in it.”
Yet she is still in it in spirit with those who knew her along with another group of people who’ve gotten to know her thanks to the stories at Rolling Meadows, Eastern Illinois, and through “Girls Fight Back.”
“It’s truly amazing. We’re just so blessed that people will still come out because they still remember her and they love her,” said McNamara. “We’re just blown away by how generous people are and how they come out every single year.”
In the process, helping a mother’s wish come true, on that was created by the person whom people take time out to remember on a late fall morning in Rolling Meadows.