Anna Wernimont’s gaze is fixated. Her eyes are wide open and perfectly still.
But she is not seeing anything in this small room on the Loras College campus.
She is seeing her father.
Al Wernimont died in 2011 after living with pancreatic cancer three years longer than doctors told him to expect. A lifelong farmer from Atlantic, Iowa, Al was 57 years old when he passed; Anna was a sophomore who had just transferred to Loras College.
Al did not live long enough to see Anna graduate from Loras today. But he lived long enough to see her come to Loras and find a second home.
Anna recalls sitting in the combine with her father shortly before he passed. She remembers telling him how grateful she was for having the opportunity to attend Loras, how she immediately fell in love with the school. Al brushed it off, Anna says, as he did whenever she tried to praise him.
Tears begin to form in Anna’s eyes.
“My dad valued education so much. And he was honored that he could send me to a good Catholic institution,” Anna said. “I’ve worked really hard for this, and I think it’s just because in the back of my mind I knew it was always what my dad really wanted for me. …
“I think in the back of my mind I was always doing it for him.”
When a family member suggested Anna stay home in Atlantic because returning to school may be too hard, Anna knew otherwise. She knew she had to come back and finish her schooling, because that is what her father wanted.
And Anna knew she had a support system in place at Loras to help her through her difficult time.
That’s when something clicked in Anna, and she realized her purpose.
“I think it was during that point when I think I really realized the impact that people can have on your life and how valuable those relationships are with people who just generally care,” Anna said.
So Anna decided to dedicate her life to service. During college she interned at Make-A-Wish Illinois in Chicago. She was actively involved in Campus Ministry. She volunteered as a mentor in the Dubuque Community School District’s re-engagement program for students who have dropped out.
She plans this year to serve in a youth mentoring program with the AmeriCorps in the Des Moines metro area. Eventually she would like to do something — perhaps counseling — to work with at-risk children.
“(Anna has) that whole sense of really knowing, especially people who are kind of struggling or more disadvantaged just because of the way life has dealt them cards, they really need someone who’s in their corner and can help affirm in their life the gifts they do have,” said Colleen Kuhl, Loras’ director of Campus Ministry.
Anna said Saturday would be bittersweet, celebrating her graduation without the father who wanted so much for this moment.
“When I walk across the stage this weekend,” Anna said, “and when I celebrate my last times with wonderful people, I think I’m just going to continue to be full of grace and gratitude because this is what he wanted.”