Warren student wins $50K scholarship

Mary O'Connor, 18, is surprised by a $50,000 check for a McDonald's Greens for Grads college scholarship on Monday afternoon at Warren County High School in Front Royal. Beside her, her grandmother Candace Cane brings her flowers and chocolates in congratulations. Josette Keelor/Daily

FRONT ROYAL — Mary O’Connor knew there was a slight chance she would win a $50,000 McDonald’s Greens for Grads scholarship.

The largest sum that McDonald’s Family Restaurants of Greater Washington, D.C., has ever given through its Educates Scholarship Program, the prize would go to three lucky high school seniors planning to enroll full time as undergraduate college or university students. Four others would receive $5,000, and the remaining 56 recipients $1,500.

The 18-year-old Front Royal resident was told she had won $1,500 and would receive her college scholarship at an awards banquet in May.

Instead, on Monday afternoon, a parade of visitors, including Ronald McDonald, interrupted her class at Warren County High School in Front Royal to tell her she had struck gold.

“I want to cry,” O’Connor said, still smiling in bewilderment. “I had no idea.”

Mary O'Connor, 18, at center, holds a check for a $50,000 McDonald's Greens for Grads college scholarship on Monday afternoon at Warren County High School in Front Royal. From left, local McDonald's franchise owner Nick Nerangis, her father Tony O'Connor, her grandmother Candace Cane and Ronald McDonald congratulate her after a surprise presentation at the school. Josette Keelor/Daily

“I never really thought that it would happen,” she said.

Her father Tony O’Connor called the experience “mind blowing” and said the scholarship should pay for half of his daughter’s education.

It’s a relief for both of them, he said.

Only Friday, his daughter had sent the university her first down payment — funds she had earned herself from an after-school job at McDonald’s on Winchester Road in northern Warren County.

She said she plans to transfer to a McDonald’s location near Fairfax after starting school in the fall.

Recently having celebrated a year at McDonald’s, she said, “I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did.”

More of her co-workers attend rival Skyline High School than Warren, she said, but now they’re all friends, and management is “such a team.”

A member of the National Honor Society, she has been on the honor roll for seven years. She’s in the Key Club, was managing editor of the yearbook committee and previously managed the school’s softball and girls’ basketball teams.

“She’s driven,” her father said. At George Mason, she plans to study journalism.

An easy choice as a scholarship recipient, she was difficult to dupe when McDonald’s Media Associate Shaquanna Shields called to let Tony O’Connor know about the surprise.

Shields admitted she wasn’t prepared for the level of covertness she would need when Mary O’Connor started asking questions.

Shields told the teen she was calling from an educational organization, and once off the phone Tony O’Connor continued the ruse:

“I told her it was a bill collector,” he recalled.

But later he couldn’t help asking his daughter what would she do if she won the $50,000.

“I would cry,” she told him. Even winning $1,500 for college among the hundreds who applied, he recalled her saying, “It’s still unbelievable.”

Now that it’s happened, she said it’s a relief not to have to worry so much about paying for school.

“Management at work is going to flip,” she said on Monday, anticipating work that evening. “They’re going to flip out.”

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com