Notable artists to pay tribute to Kenwood High School music teacher

Rev. Lena Mclin

By Wendell Hutson
Contributing Writer

A retired music teacher from Kenwood Academy High School will be honored at her 90th birthday celebration this week from former students including Grammy-award winner Robert “R” Kelly.

The birthday celebration, which is open to the public, will run from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 15, at the DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Place. A reception will follow from 9:30 p.m. to 10:45 p.m. and Cheryl Burton, anchor for ABC7 Chicago, will be the mistress of ceremonies. Tickets can be purchased online at

Kelly said it was McLin who encouraged him to pursue a music career at a time when he was more interested in playing basketball.

“I remember her asking me if I knew who I was and I said yes, I am Robert Kelly,” recalled Kelly. “And she said, ‘no, you are going to be a big time singer and songwriter.’ I was like 16 or 17-years-old when she told me this.”

Other students, who have also become successful entertainers and will honor McLin on Saturday, include Mark Rucker, Robert Sims, Tammy McCann, Donna McAfee, William Kurk, Susan Korhonen, Sharon Pass and Charlean Carmon.

The Rev. McLin, who turned 90 on Sept. 5, is pastor of Holy Vessel Baptist Church, 1448 E. 53rd St., and is also the former chairman of the Music Department at Kenwood High School, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave. where she worked from 1970 to 1991. As an educator McLin also worked at Harlan Community and Hubbard high schools as well as the former Julius H. Hess Upper Grade Center in Chicago.

As a former student at the American Conservatory of Music, Roosevelt University and Chicago State University, McLin earned a bachelor’s in Music from Spelman College in Atlanta in 1951.

According to Roger Plummer, a longtime friend of McLin, she lives in the South Shore neighborhood with her daughter and helped create many musical presentations at Kenwood High School.

“She has always had a love for music,” said Plummer. “Education and music is her life.”

In 1959, McLin started her teaching career at Hess before moving to Hubbard in 1960 and then Harlan, where she taught from 1963 to 1970. She also created performance opportunities for black musicians as a founder of the McLin Ensemble and the McLin Opera Company.

The first time Kelly met McLin was when he was a student at Kenwood and where she also left a lasting impression on him.

“My fondest memory of Ms. McLin was when I first met her on the first day of school,” recalled Kelly. “She walked into the room, the door slammed behind her (which caught everyone’s attention) and the first thing out of her mouth was ‘there’s three kids in here with gum in their mouth and they have three seconds to put it in the garbage can.’”

Kelly said 20 kids stood up at once but he was not among them even though he too had gum in his mouth.

“I swallowed my gum,” he jokingly said.

But that did not stop McLin from making Kelly the center of attention.

On that day she made Kelly stand up in front of the class and sing the 1974 hit song by Joe Cocker “You are So Beautiful to me.”

“She started playing the piano and made me sing a little bit. The class stood up and was clapping and screaming and showed me real love,” said Kelly. “I don’t think I would have pursued a career in music if it were not for her. She breathed musical air into me and I accepted it and here I am today.”