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UCM Professor Helps Student Realize Dream: Pandemic Can’t Stop Love

By Jeff Murphy, June 10, 2020

WARRENSBURG, MO – While teaching subjects such as organic chemistry may be his profession, Jay Steinkruger recently demonstrated chemistry of a different kind while making a University of Central Missouri student’s wedding dream come true at a very challenging time.


Steinkruger, associate dean of the College of Health, Science and Technology, became ordained to officiate weddings several years ago as a way to help out relatives and friends who wanted more informal, family-focused ceremonies. Although he had performed a small number of such events, he was surprised when Kennedi Laughlin, a student in his organic chemistry class, reached out to him with a request to perform her nuptials.


At a time when restrictions related to coronavirus made it difficult to find a wedding venue and out-of-state travel was discouraged, Laughlin, a junior from Fort Walton Beach, Florida, and Austin Choate, Whiteman Air Force Base, were married May 7 in a small ceremony at the bride’s Warrensburg residence with Steinkruger officiating.


“I always make a real concerted effort to get to know students, who they are, where they come from and what’s going on in their lives,” Steinkruger said.
While he is dedicated to academic success, part of his classroom approach comes with a sense of humor. With wedding experience under his belt, he sometimes jokes about being a one-stop-shop with skills he is willing to share with his students that go beyond the classroom. This includes the ability to “sing, dance, eat their food, and even officiate their weddings.”


While he never thought anyone would take his offer to engage them in matrimony seriously, Laughlin was paying attention.


“I remembered the first semester of organic chemistry he told us a little bit about himself and he jokingly talked about being ordained. We had planned our wedding for June of 2020, but because of COVID-19, we could no longer have our ceremony,” she said. “We decided to not wait any longer and just have a small ceremony with family and friends. I emailed Jay and asked about him officiating our wedding and he was totally on board.”


Streinkruger said before he had received an invitation from Laughlin, he had become aware through social media of the challenges and frustration she and her fiancé were having as their much-awaited wedding plans began to slip away because of the pandemic.


“Obviously, I felt terrible for them,” he said. “At some point she reached out to me on social media and email, and threw this idea out there. I just gave her a little background on what I had done in the past. I wanted to make sure we were on the same page in what they were wanting to accomplish.” This also meant sharing with the couple some advice about the importance of marriage and making it work.


While coronavirus may have sidelined the couple’s initial wedding plans, as Steinkruger put it, “It couldn’t stop love.” The arrangements were made, and the event went off as planned.


“The wedding was quaint and perfect,” Laughlin said.” We decorated inside of the house with banners that said ‘Mr. and Mrs.’ as well as picture of my husband and I. We had a little table behind Jay that had a picture of us, a Bible, some tree branches, and candles burning. My mom and dad were able to attend, and my mom face-timed (the wedding) with my siblings and their significant others.”


While travel and health issues prevented the groom’s family from attending out of state, one of Choate’s friends from WAFB stood up with him, and two of Laughlin’s friends from UCM also participated in the ceremony. Their presence only added more magic to the moment the groom saw the bride in her wedding dress for the first time.


“No virus was going to take away that special first-look moment from us. It ended up being a perfect day and we enjoyed having a small, intimate wedding,” Laughlin said.


She noted that Steinkruger’s participation provided a personal touch to a very important day in her life.


“I was really grateful that he would take time out of his day. Jay really takes teaching to a whole different level. He is not just a normal professor who teaches materials then goes about their day. He really connects with the class and creates a ‘trust tree’ as he likes to call it. He creates an environment that is healthy and safe. He is personally invested in his students.”


As a member of UCM’s bowling team, Laughlin said the opportunity to engage in women’s sports initially attracted her to the university, but she appreciates the learning experience. While Steinkruger has been a positive influence in her field of study, she noted the contributions other faculty members have provided to a satisfying higher education.


“I would say UCM hires exceptional faculty. There are multiple faculty members that have made my college experience astounding and I cannot thank UCM enough for that. I love that UCM is a family-oriented campus.”


For Steinkruger, there is tremendous satisfaction that comes from developing strong faculty-student relationships that lead to invitations such as the one offered by Laughlin.


“Whether it’s me getting invited to attend a wedding or a graduation, or me doing a wedding, I’m here for it all,” he said.


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