At 73, sculptor Jerry McKenna is in his prime. He first took up the art 21 years ago, after retiring from the Air Force at 52. McKenna’s story is a remarkable one and is fully told in his memoir, published last year and soon to begin its second printing. In A Third Life: Sculptures for God, Country and Notre Dame, McKenna shares his story by dividing his life into three: his childhood and student years at the University of Notre Dame; his years in the Air Force and raising a family with his wife, Gail; and the time since his retirement, in which he has become one of the U.S.’s most sought after realist sculptors. His monumental bronze statues and busts dot the country and the world, and include his iconic renditions of Notre Dame football coaches, Air Force generals, saints and religious figures, and moments in history – such as his sculptural tableaux of the Lincoln-Douglas debate in Alton, Illinois. He also has three sculptures in Ireland – Ollie Walsh in Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny, Frank Patterson in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary and St. Andre Bessette in Attymass, Co. Mayo.
McKenna was born in Connellsville, Pennsylvania. With his parents, both first generation Irish Americans, McKenna traveled the United States, as the family frequently relocated for his father’s work as a civil engineer. Jerry and Gail live in Texas and have five grown children and eleven grandchildren.
Jerry is most proud of his Irish heritage. The McKennas emigrated from County Monaghan in 1840, and his paternal grandmother, Julia Hickey, was born in Cullen, County Cork and came to America in 1873. His mother’s family came from Ballyhale, County Kilkenny, and arrived in Baltimore in 1887. Over the past thirty-five years, Jerry has made over 40 trips to Ireland to visit family and friends. He told Irish America, “If Gail and I make no other trips during the year, we always manage a visit to Ireland. This year we took our grand-daughter, Heather, with us. We covered over 1,000 miles and twenty-six of the 32 counties. Exhausting, but fun.”