Master Chief Ken Mrnak with the award he received from the NJROTC staff. The plaque indicates seven drill team championships from 2003 to 2009. | Submitted
Updated: June 29, 2012 9:40AM
When Master Chief Petty Officer Ken Mrnak was getting ready to retire from active duty in the U.S. Navy in 1999, he actually thought about a retirement job at a place like Walmart.
Fortunately for Aurora, a well-placed recruitment phone call from Lt. Commander Paul McNabb, the legendary founding leader of the East Aurora NJROTC program, changed Mrnak’s plan. More importantly, it probably changed the lives of hundreds of our young people for the better during the last 13 years.
Mrnak will retire from the Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps at the end of the school year.
“It’s been a wonderful place to work,” said Mrnak during my recent visit with him. “I moved to Aurora and met my future wife (Donna) while walking around the lake in Phillips Park.”
He brought with him 30 years of leadership experience from active duty in the Navy, highlighted by a three-year tour as maintenance master chief for the Blue Angels. The Great Lakes Naval Station near North Chicago was his last stop before retirement.
As Mrnak joined McNabb and CPO Craig White at East Aurora in the fall of 1999, the NJROTC had grown to about 350 cadets. As he leaves in a few weeks, Mrnak has seen the program grow to almost 1,000 cadets and nine military instructors. It is the largest NJROTC unit in the United States, more than double the next largest one.
In addition to teaching duties, Mrnak coached the rifle team during his first two years at the school. But starting in the fall of 2001, he began coaching the drill team, and an incredible record of success was soon to begin.
The drill team did well enough the first year, but during the second year, brought an Area 3 (which covers eight states) championship back to Aurora. The victory was the first of an amazing seven consecutive titles under Mrnak‘s leadership, and each one was rewarded with a trip to Pensacola, Fla., to participate in the national tournament.
“I remember reading them the riot act after a bad meet performance (during the first championship year), and that was really the turning point,” Mrnak said. “They started to believe in themselves and came out of nowhere to win that first championship. I was flabbergasted that we won the title and were able to go to the nationals.
“The kids didn’t think they had the talent that other teams had, and I had to try to motivate them. We practiced two times a day (the first at 6 a.m.) and also during school vacations and days off.”
As the championship years rolled on, the commitment to the team displayed by the students and Mrnak had to stay high.
“I was totally devoted to the drill team — it was my only hobby,” he said. “I could never let up, because I didn’t want the students to let up.
“But it wasn’t just about work. It was about being a family. There were 50 kids, and it was about a lot more than being their coach. You got to know them and their problems.”
The consecutive championships ended in 2010, which was also Mrnak’s last year as the coach, mostly because of health issues.
“I had to give it up, but I hated giving it up,” Mrnak said.
He underwent a lung transplant which, appropriately, occurred on Veterans Day of 2010. He was back to work within two months to finish his 12th year on the staff.
He was emotional as he talked about retirement.
“I will miss being involved in kids’ lives,” he said. “We’re a safe haven down here (the ROTC area), and you’re more a part of a family.
“I will miss meeting kids as freshmen, and later watching them go off to the Naval Academy, Purdue, or another college. I’ll miss the relationships.
“This has been even more fulfilling than being a leader of men in the active military. To be so involved in kids’ lives — I have enjoyed that tremendously.”
You will be missed, too, Master Chief. Thank you from a grateful generation of youngsters (and oldsters) for whom you made a difference.
Tom Strong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.