A celebration 50 years in the making
On Dec. 16, Holly and Barry Kahan sat next to one another in gold-colored caps and gowns, beaming before they would cross the stage at the UIC Pavilion.
“It was a dream,” Holly Kahan said.
Not only were the husband and wife returning to their alma mater as Golden Graduates, but they were also celebrating another moment that was 50 years in the making: it was the first time the pair participated in a UIC commencement ceremony after missing theirs in 1967. The university had unexpectedly rescheduled graduation from May to June 18, 1967, the day the longtime sweethearts were set to marry.
The husband and wife met early in life, at 14 and 13 years old, and dated throughout high school and college.
In high school, Holly Kahan lived in Evanston and Barry Kahan in unincorporated Glenview. They didn’t drive and public transportation was limited, so the trip to meet was difficult, but it was one that Barry Kahan managed to make. When it was time to start college, Holly Kahan decided on the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her husband enrolled at the University of Illinois Navy Pier campus.
“My reason for going to Madison had to do with a couple of things my parents wished for me. One was to have the experience of being away and to have a university experience, and the other was they wanted to make sure that I was sure about Barry because I was so young once we started dating,” said Holly Kahan.
She was sure. In her second year, Holly Kahan transferred to the University of Illinois Navy Pier location, then the Kahans transitioned to the Chicago Circle Campus. The school offered academic and professional development opportunities that were invaluable.
“I found that my teachers [at the Navy Pier and Chicago Circle campuses] were actually much better,” said Holly Kahan, who is an alumna of what is now the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts. In the past, she’s worked in areas related to communication and advertising design. Now, she’s a business founder and owner of HollyBarry House, a relationship design company.
“The education I got at UIC was much more applicable to my real-life career…there have been principles in my classes that I have applied almost everywhere in my life,” she said.
Barry Kahan studied biology, chemistry and political science and went on to complete a law degree at Northwestern University. He’s been a practicing attorney ever since. In earlier years, he represented construction managers and downtown real estate developers, and helped companies that led condominium conversions and other entrepreneurial efforts. Barry Kahan has also been chairman of the Chicago Bar Association Landlord-Tenant Relations Committee. Currently, he is a sole practitioner.
“It was a very rigorous educational experience,” he said.
In the fall of 1965, Holly Kahan became the first homecoming queen of the Chicago campus.
“I was her [campaign] manager,” Barry Kahan said, “and I was promoting her. We organized a campaign for Holly to reach out to others and get comfortable in large groups because she was, at that time, she was very quiet, so this was my effort to have her open herself up to the rest of the world.”
“He obviously was very successful in that,” Holly Kahan laughed.
Dec. 16 was the couple’s long-awaited celebration of those memories and their time together.
“It was just a magnificent experience,” said Holly Kahan, adding that two of their three children and five of seven grandchildren attended. The Golden Graduates received commemorative medals.
After meeting students and university leaders, the Kahans feel a stronger connection to the UIC community.
“I found it extraordinary that there were so many people from so many backgrounds still doing what we did, which was being the first — at least in my family — graduating from college and coming from immigrant backgrounds, where their parents had worked hard to both get them to the United States and support them in having an education,” said Barry Kahan. “That, for me, was overwhelming.”