Staff members at Notre Dame Academy recall Kristina Keneally (in a 2007 photo) as a tenacious competitor and say that she took to heart the message of 'girl power' that the school tries to instill.
<The Blade/Amy E. Voigt
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A half a world away from where she grew up and from where her parents still live, Kristina Keneally is making political headlines.
SYDNEY - A half a world away from where she grew up and from where her parents still live, Kristina Keneally is making political headlines.
A longtime Whitehouse resident and a 1987 graduate of Notre Dame Academy in Toledo, Mrs. Keneally, 40, was named premier of the Parliament of New South Wales, one of six states and two major territories that comprise Australia. When she was sworn in this morning in Australia - Sydney is 16 hours ahead of Toledo time - the first U.S.-born member of the Parliament became its first woman premier.
"We're extremely proud of her," said her father, John Kerscher, 66, of Whitehouse. "She's a pretty driven person and when she sets her mind on something she's going to achieve it, or at least try 110 percent."
Formerly Kristina Kerscher, Mrs. Keneally was born on a Nevada Air Force base but grew up in the Toledo area, her father said. She moved to Australia in 1994 and now lives outside of Sydney with her husband, Ben, a native Australian, and their two sons.
Her rise to premier came with some controversy. Headlines in Australian newspapers declared a split in the Labor party that ultimately chose her over the former premier. In a news conference aired on the Sydney Morning
News Web site, Mrs. Keneally said it was time "to heal the party."
"The party put their trust in me, and I accept the responsibility that they have given me," she said.
According to the Web site of the Daily Telegraph in New South Wales, Mrs. Keneally also said in the news conference that she was a regular "working mum" who would work hard for the people of the state.
"I don't intend on being the last woman standing. I would not have put my hand up if I did not intend to be premier in March, 2011," she said. "The party has taken the view that it is time for us to heal, and they have turned to me with that task."
"I would also like to tell you a little bit about myself. I have an accent, but I am first and foremost a proud Australian," she said as her two sons, ages 9 and 11, looked on. "I came to this country because I fell in love with a man but immediately when I came here I fell in love with this country."
Marty McGurk isn't surprised to learn that the young woman he coached on the basketball court at Notre Dame Academy is now a political leader. Mr. McGurk said he remembers "Kristi" as opinionated and rebutted the media criticism that she was a "puppet" of the party. The most basic proof of her independent thinking, he said, is her choice to enter politics.
"When she was on the floor, she was a very tenacious competitor. Which I guess getting into politics, I don't care here or in Australia, you have to be tenacious," said Mr. McGurk, who now teaches social studies and is the assistant girls varsity basketball coach at Central Catholic High School.
"But at the same time I'd say that she always kept it in the right focus," he added. "She always wanted to compete, always wanted to win, but wanted to do it in the right way."
After high school, Mrs. Keneally attended the University of Dayton where she received a degree in political science. While there, she served as president of the National Association of Students at Catholic Colleges and Universities and participated in a program that allowed her to shadow then Lt. Gov. Paul Leonard, who served with former Gov. Dick Celeste.
She left politics for a while to pursue an interest in theology - in which she earned a master's degree - a course of study that led her to Poland in 1991, where she met her husband. Mrs. Keneally was there helping to represent the United States during the Catholic Church's World Youth Day. He was Australia's representative.
The two married five years later in a ceremony at St. Joseph's Church in Maumee.
Per Australian requirements, Mrs. Keneally renounced her U.S. citizenship before running for a seat in the 93-member parliament. Critics had once accused her of not being a true Australian, her father said, but they were silenced when learning that her mother, Catherine Kerscher, and grandmother were both born in Australia.
"You and I would think that she has a strong Australian accent now, but they can tell in Australia that she doesn't," he said.
Despite her occasionally being called a "Yank," Mrs. Keneally told The Blade in a 2007 interview that she is most often treated like an Australian, although she still holds an emotional tie in her heart for the United States.
"It's fair to say I made a conscious effort to speak like an Australian," she said, "because I don't want people to think how I'm saying things, but what I'm saying."
New South Wales is the most populous state in Australia, with nearly 7 million people. Her district is one of the poorest, with 17 percent of her constituents at one time living in public housing.
A staff member for Mrs. Keneally said yesterday that the new premier would not be available to talk by phone.
Laura Gallaher, the chairman of Notre Dame Academy's English department, taught Mrs. Keneally honors English during her junior year. Yesterday Ms. Gallaher said that the school works hard to instill "girl power," a message Mrs. Keneally obviously heard.
"We always ask, 'What are you going to do to make yourself heard and to do the right thing?' We're very pleased to see she took that to heart," Ms. Gallaher said, adding she was "thrilled" to learn news of Mrs. Keneally's rise was bigger in the Australian media than golfer Tiger Woods' fall.
Mr. Kerscher said it's been a few months since he has seen his daughter. The 27-hour trip to Sydney means that he and his wife make it there only about once a year. And with two sons and two grandchildren still living stateside, the couple doesn't have plans to move closer to his political powerhouse of a daughter.
Mr. Kerscher wasn't the only one proud of Mrs. Keneally's accomplishments yesterday. Those who knew her, and even some who didn't, spread the word yesterday of a young woman from Toledo who is now a leader abroad.
"I always think Toledo should twin with a city in Australia; now I think they have a good reason to," said Lindsay Smith, an Australian native living in Toledo, who doesn't know Mrs. Keneally but certainly knows of her. "I'm always looking to find a bit of Sydney in Toledo. There's a little bit of Toledo in Sydney now."