An Interview With Frank McKearn IV
I had described Frank McKearn IV as an enigma. He seemed mysterious, always roaming around campus and through the Powerhouse, always on a mission to somewhere. I had first noticed McKearn last year, first just through seeing him at the Powerhouse, then as engineer and advisor for WBCR, Beloit College’s radio station. This man was everywhere, and doing everything, but I wanted to know exactly where and what. I sat down with him on Thursday to talk about his life, how he got to Beloit, and what he’s been doing since he has been here. We also talked about the Coughy Haus, which is where this interview was held.
Coughy Haus, or better known around campus as “C-Haus”, is our campus bar. It was closed due to the pandemic, and has not reopened since. Inside, the walls are slathered with paintings done by students; quotes and sayings and eggplants, faces and on the inside of the door, a 4 foot tall Tralfamadorian, the fictional alien race of Kurt Vonnegut novels. We sat at the bar, which, as McKearn informed me later in the interview, was built by students. But before talk of C-Haus, let me introduce Beloit College’s very own Frank McKearn IV.
McKearn grew up in Beloit and attended Beloit Memorial High School, and was part of the school’s jazz band. He played the trumpet, but he was also part of something much larger than just a school band. Beloit Memorial has a great arts program which allowed the jazz band to travel all over the country to perform. They even played at the developer of Instagram’s wedding after he had seen the group on YouTube; an event also attended by Mark Zuckerberg and Karlie Kloss.
“That’s insane,” was my reply. It was baffling to think of a high school band playing at that level, especially in a normal, small town school. It makes sense though, as McKearn mentioned he played up to 8 hours a day.
He was also a Porter Scholar. Beloit College partners with high schools in the area to let high school seniors who are in the top 10% of their class take a course through the college. McKearn’s roots are in Beloit, and even after leaving Wisconsin for college, he was brought back to Beloit.
He went to Northern Illinois University, first to study music, and then moved into recording arts. As he puts it, he studied “acoustical physics and electrical engineering roped into one degree, with a little bit of music in there too.” I was amazed by his high school trumpet career, but when he told me of his experiences in college I could not believe it. A professor of his did a lot of recording and sound work for Northwestern and Notre Dame. McKearn helped to record an opera that Augusta Read Thomas had written for the Santa Fe Opera Company, as well as recording ensembles at Notre Dame. He went into professional work right off the bat, doing work for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Metropolitan Club on the 66th and 67th floors of the Sears Tower, and met the prime minister of Australia.
While he was actively gigging between Chicago and Madison, he started helping out a former manager of C-Haus with the building’s sound system. He started doing more and more shows, and stayed with C-Haus through a change in managers before filling the position himself just after quarantine began.
“I feel weird saying that I’m a manager of C-Haus because C-Haus hasn’t been open since I’ve had the position.”
C-Haus is a topic that flutters about campus, with students asking about its return. As someone who had interacted with the space, McKearn knows how important the space is to the Beloit College community. Both the stage and the bar were built by students, using the wood panelling that had originally been on the walls before the 2019 remodel. When asked about the remodel, McKearn stated, “I don’t think you realize that this floor looked nothing like this 4 years ago.” The building had undergone major renovations, with walls torn down, flooring redone, and the roof patched. This is part of the reason the basement is closed. As a result of these renovations, the building must now be ADA compliant. This would require the undertaking of adding an elevator or additional staircase to make the basement compliant. In other words, a big project. However, the first floor space is still perfectly functional. With a few touch ups to the kitchen it could be a creative outlet for students, something which the college has not had in a few years, and not many on campus remember.
“This can’t go to waste, we need somebody in there who actually understands what that experience was to people before.” The building is rich with history from the students who helped to build it and decorate it, leaving their mark permanently on its walls, to the name of the building itself. Says McKearn, “The purpose of C-Haus, in my opinion, is to teach people about responsible consumption, and how to create positive and enriching entertainment, whether that’s through music, spoken word, comedy, or poetry.” But the space is closed.
The COVID Task Force has decided that the opening of C-Haus will be reconsidered during winter break, but for now, it will be closed. For McKearn, C-Haus has been viewed as an ‘Animal House’ party spot, but it doesn’t have to be that. To him, it is so much more than that, it is a place to house performing arts on campus. It is a place for people to see their friends speak poetry, and a space that “English classes want to come in here and do a ‘reading of the writings.’” C-Haus can be that place on campus for people to go and hang out and be involved in a variety of academic activities in a space that helps to foster a community.
As building supervisor of the Powerhouse as well as C-Haus manager, he has seen how both buildings have been beneficial to campus, but they serve different purposes. C-Haus should have the ability to be open and another space on campus for students to be in, much like how the Powerhouse is now.
Since its closing, McKearn has not been able to make C-Haus into this place he imagines, so he has been spending more time at the Powerhouse, earning him the name of “Powerhouse Frank” around campus. His reply? “Yikes.” He also said, “No! It’s C-Haus Frank.”
“I have done, what feels, everything but C-Haus.” And he has. Beyond the Powerhouse, McKearn is also involved with WBCR, the campus radio station. His first interactions with the station were helping the managers at the time to fix some technical issues, as well as update the studio and make sure everything was up to regulation. He also mentioned something about the station which I had not previously known; there are community members who have radio shows. Before COVID, students from local Beloit high schools hosted radio shows, as well as Sister Brenda Jones-Harper, and, according to McKearn, “If you need a fix on gospel music, every Saturday morning from 9-1, she’s got you.” Public broadcasting is helpful in more ways than one. It gives high school students an opportunity to interact with the Beloit Campus, and really opens up the idea for them to come to Beloit. It also allows the college and the Beloit community to come together. “Everybody could benefit from these two things intermingling a little more.”
One thing I gathered from talking with McKearn is that he truly enjoys giving back. Over the summer, he did music production in Door County, doing at least six productions a week at a music performance center, and still has over 60 concerts to mix. He is able to service AV systems in the Powerhouse, and is also able to help at Maple Tree Studio, Beloit College’s professional level recording studio at CELEB. He was also not only willing, but happy to deliver meals to students last year who were in quarantine, and considered it a joy. Multiple times throughout our conversation, he showed that he was willing to do a lot for people to have amazing opportunities and stay involved on campus. He helped keep WBCR and C-Haus alive, two assets that people don’t necessarily realize the value of.
I did this interview because I wanted to know more about this man, who’s role on campus was hazy, and who many people believed to be a student. It was illuminating to talk to him and know more about his life and his role on campus. He has shed the title of “enigma”, and even shared with me his full name: Francis Eugene McKearn IV. And hopefully, he is less of a mystery to everyone else around campus. So, if you get the chance, don’t be a stranger. Go introduce yourself and say “hi.” Says McKearn, “I’ve loved everyone I’ve met here, and I can’t wait to finally meet everyone else. There are so many great students here, and there’s a place for everyone… I’m happy that I’ve found mine on campus.”