‘He chose what he was most passionate about’: Family, friends and NU community remember Facilities Technician Kevin McLean


Photo courtesy of Brenda McLean

Kevin McLean with his wife Brenda McLean, sons Ethan and Colin, and Willie the Wildcat outside of Wrigley Field in Chicago.

Zella Milfred, Senior Staffer

Growing up in Chicago, Kevin McLean often spent his afternoons tinkering with small creations in his grandfather’s tool shed. His interests in mechanics carried into adulthood, pushing him to become a facilities technician at Northwestern, where he worked for 14 years.

“Kevin could have been successful with any career path he wanted to pursue,” said Chris Papastathis, Kevin McLean’s childhood best friend. “But at the end of the day, he chose what he was most passionate about. I really think that’s why he was such a talented, master electrician.” 

Kevin McLean died on April 28 at the age of 50 due to cancer-related complications and is survived by his wife and two sons. His work at the University lives on in many of the intricate exterior lighting systems on buildings throughout campus. These include color-changing LED lights in the Rebecca Crown Center Clocktower and on the outside of Deering Library.  

Deering glows blue for autism awareness in April and pink for breast cancer awareness in October. It will shine with rainbow-colored lights for Pride Month in June. 

Supervisor and Chief Electrician John McDonagh said Kevin McLean was the first in the facilities department to advocate for using LED lights, which the U.S. Department of Energy considers to be the most energy-efficient lighting technology. 

“People didn’t want to put LEDs in buildings because they thought they weren’t going to last or didn’t trust this technology, but he saw the value in it,” McDonagh said. 

Kevin McLean also pushed to update electrical meters on-campus to track the University’s power quality and usage. Additionally, he’d been the first at NU to advocate for the campus GE Current’s LightGrid, which uses smart controls to dim and brighten outdoor lighting throughout the day.

Kevin McLean’s ability to stay up to date with the newest technologies and build relationships with manufacturers and contractors made the above projects possible, McDonagh said. 

In 2022, Kevin McLean received an Illumination Award of Merit from the Illuminating Engineering Society for his role in implementing LED lighting and smart controls in Alice Millar Chapel. He spent nearly a decade advocating for the funding necessary for the project, which was completed after he left NU a year and a half ago.

“Kevin did the whole design for that project. Even though it (was) put on hold when he was here, it is the result of his hard work,” said Facilities Archivist Mary Beth Dermody.

During his time at NU, Kevin McLean helped Dermody collect drawings and blueprints of buildings on campus for a digital archive to aid those who are doing maintenance or construction at NU. Whenever a co-worker went looking for specific equipment, Kevin McLean always knew exactly where to direct them, Dermody said. 

Coworkers and friends, including Papastathis, describe Kevin McLean as “wickedly smart,” generous, loyal and funny. He always took safety measures seriously and insisted on dedicating time to complete projects at the highest quality possible, McDonagh said. He could also diffuse any awkward situation with humor, McDonagh added.

“The twinkle in his eye, I’ll never forget it,” Dermody said with a smile. “When you saw that twinkle in his eye, you went, ‘Oh, something’s coming.’”

Apart from planning larger-scale lighting projects, Kevin McLean also responded to student maintenance requests in residence halls and helped plan the annual facilities department picnic. He once gave the Heimlich Maneuver to a woman choking in one of the dining halls. He saved her life, but didn’t want any public recognition for it, McDonagh said.

“He was always willing to help even without being asked,” said Kevin O’Malley, an NU electrician and one of Kevin McLean’s best friends. “If he overheard a conversation in the shop about a building or project, if he had something to add, he would join in — and often his contribution was the solution.” 

Kevin McLean attended Southern Illinois University and worked at multiple electrical companies before coming to Northwestern, O’Malley said. He added that despite Kevin McLean’s passion for his work, he was “first and foremost a father and provider for his family.”

Brenda McLean, who met Kevin McLean in high school and married him 20 years ago, said her husband often helped neighbors with home maintenance and built fun projects for his sons Ethan and Colin  — like a backyard ice skating rink every winter. He loved movies, traveling and Mexican cuisine, she said. 

“He loved Northwestern. He was so proud of what he did there,” Brenda McLean said. “When they started working on the LED lighting projects, he was so excited that they were upgrading things. He was always thinking of how to make the campus better and safer.”

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Twitter: @ZMilfred

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