The first 150 years: Alumni Association celebrates legacy of service
As the Illinois State University Alumni Association marks its sesquicentennial, a look back over the first century and a half of service to the University, students, and fellow alumni shows just cause for celebration.
From the beginning, ISU alumni have championed the ideals and objectives of the University’s founders—service, loyalty and progress. Today, the association and its network of clubs and chapters have forged lasting bonds of friendship with fellow alumni and their communities nationwide and, in the process, brought incalculable good to the University.
The first informal alumni meeting took place in 1860. Immediately following commencement exercises that year, the 10 members of the first graduating class gathered at Majors Hall for congratulations and planned to reunite the following year. Uppermost on their minds, then as now, was to stay connected with their classmates and friends.
In 1863, the first formal meeting of the Alumni Association of Illinois State Normal University (ISNU) took place when members of the graduating class assembled in the Wrightonian Hall of Old Main. Graduates shared intentions for giving back to the University that had given them so much, even as it was in the earliest stages.
As one alumnus of the time described the environs, “Bloomington and Normal were separated by two miles of prairie, weeds, wagon roads, trees, and brambles, with no method of public transportation between the two points, not even Dave Law’s carriage propelled by steam dummies.”
Students constructed a wooden walkway over the muddy trail, emphasizing that the improvement would ensure their prompt arrival in class. Such proactive service has been the norm for constituents throughout the decades—especially on the part of alumni.
In 1865, graduates gathered for “great cordiality, many congratulations, and a social meeting,” which was to be the theme of alumni gatherings for the next 20 years. As ISNU’s alumni communities grew in number, so too did occasions of celebration, reunion, and service.
By the time of the University’s 40th anniversary, alumni fervor was much in evidence. ISU Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History John Freed, author of Educating Illinois: Illinois State University, 1857-2007, documented that the 1865 celebration surpassed all expectations and showed the extent of alumni pride and loyalty.
“It was an enormous ceremony,” said Freed, “and the last time that the first four presidents of the University are here, including (Charles) Hovey, who comes out from Washington and stays with (John) Cook, his brother-in-law. All four of them are here, and the alumni describe it in extraordinary detail in a history published by alumni in 1907.
“(Samuel) Moulton speaks. He is the last surviving member of the original board, and the man who is responsible for getting the acts passed—both the school act and then the University act—through the legislature. The celebrations are connected to the two debating societies: the Wrightonians and the Philadelphians. They all talk. You get a sense of the kind of involvement that is hard to imagine,” Freed said.
“They’re all alumni, and their involvement—debates, discussions, talks—is incredible. They’re the ones who are producing these histories. Many of them come back to teach here—particularly the women who teach in the model school. There’s this enormous relationship with the alumni in the 19th century, and I think it comes out particularly in that celebration of the 40th anniversary. They provide their memoirs, their recollections of what it was like. Picture that happening today!”
Now numbering more than 186,000, alumni today actively support the University by recruiting; establishing scholarships and funding programs; enabling promising students; advocating on behalf of the University; maintaining traditions; and carrying out countless acts of award, recognition, support, and commemoration on a continuing basis.
“From the beginning, the thrust of the Alumni Association has been about building community,” said former Alumni Association President Lynda Lane ’66, who served on the Alumni Association Board of Directors for 40 years. “Our mission focuses on communicating the University’s goals and achievements, and promoting a spirit of unity and loyalty among alumni.”
In all its forms, alumni giving aligns with the association’s core values, which are “to support the University through the knowledge, skills, financial resources, and loyalty of its alumni.” Alumni efforts also revolve around the implicit goal of creating and maintaining community with former students and friends.
Loyal alumni promote ISU through their professional careers. They serve as hosts for student teachers and interns; contribute to programs, departments, and facilities; lead presentations on professional life; mentor students; serve on the Alumni Association and Illinois State University Foundation boards; and utilize their time and talent to empower the institution as it widens its reach around the world.
From the original class of 10 graduates, alumni have become a vital force of strong voices—uniting at times of special need, influencing state funding, even stepping up to save a university department from legislative demise. The Alumni Association has worked to create a legacy of its own with a diverse awards program to honor outstanding graduates.
Andrew Purnell ’57 was extensively involved in the awards program as a 14-year board member. “My work on the alumni board involved serving on the Awards Committee,” he said. “We would select an alum who has done outstanding work in their field, or given service to their country, university, and community.”
A recipient of the Alumni Association’s Distinguished Alumnus Award, Purnell also received the E. Burton Mercier Award for his service to the University. A founding member of ISU Black Colleagues Association (ISUBCA), he is a former president of the organization and served as the ISUBCA’s scholarship chair for many years.
“The Alumni Association’s Alumni Awards Committee reviews candidates and evaluates and selects winners to recommend for the Distinguished Alumni Award for Outstanding Achievement and Outstanding Service—nationally, globally or locally, to our communities, to the University,” Purnell said. “It gives alumni a chance to be recognized and reconnected, even though many have not come back to the University since graduation.”
Other alumni efforts have resulted in a 10-year reunion plan, on-campus mentoring, and career networking, as well as supporting special ISU traditions such as Homecoming and Founders Day.
Through the years alumni have enriched Homecoming, which was first observed in 1921. By 2012 it had grown into a week of celebration highlighted by the traditional parade and football game. Today alumni from across the nation and representing departments from all of campus join the annual celebration that involves the larger Bloomington-Normal community.
“Year by year it gets bigger and bigger,” Lane said. Alumni at long distances can participate by watching via streaming media the Homecoming football game and other events as “part of our alumni outreach to these geographic groups.”
Commencement festivities have also grown thanks to alumni participation. By 1925, the day included special programs and entertainment, as well as reunions and other events. Regalia was introduced in 1934, which was the first year for an outdoor ceremony.
As enrollments continued to climb, so did the University’s efforts to make commencement a memorable event. Individual ceremonies were added for each of the colleges, with all graduates given the opportunity to cross the stage. In 1991, a December ceremony was added.
Old school ties
Through the years, the Alumni Association established its wider purpose. Members became more active in their support of the University, giving back for an education many consider “beyond price,” including Chicago attorney Julie Robinson Jones ’90.
The former ISUBCA president is an active university supporter and Redbird booster. Like so many alumni, she credits her ISU degree for professional success that opened “so many doors of opportunity and connections.” As Jones can attest, alumni networks unite graduates in friendship and service to the University and its communities.
“We are really about friendraising,” said 2012 Alumni Association President Janessa Williams ’89. An ISU staff member, she is a member of the ISUBCA and a past association president.
Friendship and service were reinforced when a new channel of alumni communications appeared with the Alumni Quarterly, first published in February of 1912. The publication stemmed from an alumni decision made during commencement the preceding year. The fledgling publication had 300 subscribers in June of 1912, as author Helen Marshall noted in The Grandest of Enterprises, and a tacit mission to strengthen and unite the alumni and university communities.
By 1919, the Alumni Quarterly was a vital alumni news source for reunions and other events, which encouraged connection and active involvement. It further served as a platform for new initiatives, such as recommending the adoption of a 10-year reunion plan.
In 1937, the publication changed to an 8 ½ x 11 format and the following year, included a directory of alumni in administrative positions. By 1949, the association agreed that the Quarterly would promote the welfare of the University with a focus on “friends, freshmen, and funds.”
By 1940, the Alumni Quarterly was published four times a year and printed by ISU’s Printing Services, according to J.R. “Russ” Steele ’46, M.A. ’48, a former staff writer in the Alumni Office. He was hired by Gertrude Hall as a student sports writer in 1940-1941 and worked with university photographer and 50-year campus documentarian, Nelson Smith. Steele later contributed to alumni publications and edited the 1957 film, Proud Thy Halls, a history of the University written by Hall.
By the 1960s, the alumni publication was known as The Statesman. It evolved over time from a magazine known as Illinois State Today to a newsprint publication in the 1990s called Alumni Today. In 2000, President Vic Boschini set aside funds for the publication to become a full-color, 40-page magazine published as Illinois State: For Alumni of Illinois State University.
The name was changed again in 2003 to Illinois State Alumni Magazine. With a redesign in 2011, the magazine became Illinois State with the intent of reaching a wider audience of donors, friends, and current students.
Produced quarterly as a joint endeavor between University Marketing and Communications and Alumni Relations, Illinois State is sent to all alumni with no subscription fee. One objective for the publication is to maintain a personal link between alumni and their alma mater, bringing them back to campus through content that increases respect for their ISU degree and empower readers to speak as advocates for the University. Feedback proves the goal is being met, as alumni surveyed consistently rank Illinois State at the top of the list of “most appreciated alumni benefits.”
“The University has made an exceptional effort to remain connected with key constituencies, especially alumni, through the quarterly publication of the magazine,” said Susan Blystone ’84, M.S. ’03, who as of 2012 had served as the magazine editor for more than a decade. “The fact that it is sent to all alumni at no cost is a statement of Illinois State’s commitment to nurture the unique bond all Redbirds share as graduates and with the campus as a whole.”
Thanks in part to their flagship publication, ISU alumni quickly became a strong collective voice on behalf the University. As the Alumni Association membership grew into the thousands, so too did the influence of graduates and the outreach of the Alumni Association Board of Directors.
“In the 1970s, the board met only three or four times a year,” Lane said. Since then the group has played a larger and larger role. “We now have established committees in our constitution for Homecoming, board development, scholarships, an Athletics liaison committee, and others. We take turns being chairs of those committees, and have also tried to incorporate some non-board members on the committees.
“There is also a committee to reach out to alumni for financial support, which could not have happened while the University was primarily funded by the state. As that began to change, our role began to change, as cultivators of relationships reaching out to alumni and identifying the different constituencies that are out there. We have a Chapters and Clubs Committee, and the focus has become more on geographic area.”
Williams explains the board’s objectives. “Currently, we have two major focal areas: increasing the engagement of alumni, and working with current students to make them aware of the Alumni Association. As an Alumni Association Board of Directors, we make sure that we sponsor and support one of those two goals.”
Purnell adds that “the University benefits by connection with its alumni. It’s very important to alumni to continue their involvement with the University.” ISUBCA 2012 President Reginald “Reggie” Summerrise ’86 sees that commitment with the Black Colleagues Association.
“The minority group I represent has a strong interest in connection with colleagues,” Summerrise said. “It is our duty to give back to the University that gave us so much. If you won’t support your own, who will support them?”
Giving and funding
As the University grew, financial support became more important. During the 1964-1965 school year, alumni who already paid dues were urged to contribute to the giving fund: “Your membership dues and fund contribution are very important and provide needed support to the development and future greatness of our alma mater,” read a letter from the Alumni Association. “Contributions will help keep ISU a first-class university. Please give thoughtfully in appreciation for the education received at Illinois State University.”
“As costs go up, we spend more and more time now fundraising, and the many alumni scholarships become even more important,” said Robert “Chip” Bone, M.A. ’82. He is the son of the late ISU President Robert G. Bone, and a member of the University’s Conference Services staff.
The need for financial support to sustain the high quality of education at ISU has grown exponentially as the University is determined to continue offering exceptional opportunities to students. “The fact, for example, that you can start doing a lot of important research as an undergraduate is an opportunity you can’t get elsewhere,” Bone said.
As state funding for the University consistently decreased, the climate for fundraising changed, spurring further alumni initiatives. The need to be proactive and work to bring in private dollars was the emphasis of President Thomas Wallace. It was under his watch that the University’s financial paradigm shifted as Illinois State developed a philanthropic culture, which alumni supported.
“In some ways,” said Freed, “the Wallace presidency from 1988 to 1995 was a decisive turning point in creating ISU as we know it today. Essentially Wallace grasped the fact that we can’t count on state funding anymore. With state contributions at 20 percent and no increase while every bill goes up, the University is virtually dependent on tuition and fundraising, and that means alumni involvement.”
Steele agrees that the Wallace era brought fundraising to the fore. “The University didn’t really get into fundraising until President Wallace,” he said. “They were doing some, but didn’t really work hard at it.”
Pete Whitmer worked as a development director for the University at the time. “He was a planned giving man–a fundraiser—and that phase got going and started before the David Strand presidency,” Steele said.
As alumni giving took on added importance, alumni chapters and interest groups established additional funding initiatives of their own. New alumni were encouraged to prioritize contributions to their alma mater.
Jen Groezinger ’02, the 2012 Chicago Young Alumni president, believes planned giving can and should start early. “If you’re willing to give at the $10 level when you’re 23, it’s the hope that you will incrementally increase your donation as your salary increases throughout your life to give back to the University which has given so much to you and put you where you are in your life. You don’t have to be a big-time donor. Every dollar counts.”
Former Alumni Relations Executive Director Barbara Tipsord Todd ’79, M.S. ’84, agrees. “That $10 may not seem like much, but next to 186,000 other donations, it adds up to a significant amount.”
“It’s not how much you give, it’s the percentage of the alumni who give,” said Groezinger. “The $10 donation is just as important as the $10,000 donation.”
Participation is critically important to the University’s rankings, as noted by Ben Stickley ’08. “Highly regarded institutions have strong alumni networks,” said Stickley, who is a founding member of Illinois State Alumni in Finance and active with the Chicago Young Alumni Network. “Alumni giving allows the University to maintain premier professors and high-level faculty, smaller classrooms, and updated facilities.”
All are an integral part of the University’s mission, which states the University’s commitment to create “a diverse community of scholars with a commitment to fostering a small-college atmosphere with large-university opportunities. We promote the highest academic standards in our teaching, scholarship, public service and the connections we build among them. We devote all of our resources and energies to creating the most supportive and productive community possible to serve the citizens of Illinois and beyond.”
Alumni giving helps make all of that possible, and further, has supported other projects and initiatives through the years. In 1885, alumni returned to campus for the University’s 25th anniversary and established a fund to honor Joseph Howell. A member of the first graduating class at ISNU, Howell was the first to enlist from campus in response to President Abraham Lincoln’s call for Civil War volunteers, and among the first casualties from the University’s ranks.
By 1924, building fundraising and giving were promoted. Alumni set a goal of $150,000 for contributions to match state funding for a new gymnasium. The following year, the Alumni Association honored the presidency of David Felmley with the gift of a portrait commemorating his 25 years in office.
In 1931, more ambitious goals were planned, including the intention to work toward funding for a building, library, or alumni headquarters. A headquarters for “the Normal” was envisioned for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
The association proposed a university appropriation for alumni action in 1932, citing the importance and value of alumni service to the University. At the same time, alumni renewed their intentions to recruit promising students, as well as establish as many clubs and alumni organizations as possible to help promote the University.
In 1934, President Raymond Fairchild took action to re-energize the alumni, promote the Quarterly, and encourage more involvement with the University. One year later, ISNU was the second largest teachers’ college in the U.S. with a 1,900 student enrollment, 547 graduates, and 350 paying alumni members. Alumni were encouraged to help the University, which by 1936 had become the largest teachers’ college in the nation.
That same year Fairchild actively encouraged the Alumni Association, clubs and chapters—as well as interaction between campus resources, faculty, and alumni. He appointed Hall as representative for teacher placements and alumni assistance. She traveled throughout the state to connect campus resources and faculty with clubs, and enhance Quarterly news. The association continued to seek out capable students, contribute financially, and strengthen its legislative influence.
In the 1950s, alumni contributed 72 percent of the $55,750 established as their original quota for a new student union, which opened in 1956. Ownership of the proposed building was to be vested in a corporation known as the Alumni Foundation.
The class of 1958 started a Robert G. Bone Fund via Alumni Services on the occasion of President Bone’s retirement in 1967. Commissioned artwork for the campus and research by both students and faculty were included in the plan.
The gift of the Lura Eyestone School Museum was brought to West campus in 1964. It was built in 1899 as one of the first of nearly 300 one-room schoolhouses in McLean County. The Alumni Association raised the $10,000 cost to move and rehabilitate the school, which was authentically furnished with wooden desks, chalk slates, and a coal stove. Francis Wade, director of Alumni Services from 1955 until 1965, supported the initiative.
During the same timeframe, 26 county alumni clubs were recognized regionally. These clubs were growing and becoming hubs of support for the University, which took a major step forward in creating a strong welcome back to campus for graduates with the development of an Alumni Center. Shortly after the building opened in 2011, the Alumni Association worked to honor one of its members, Carl Kasten ’66.
“Alumni raised more than $25,000 for the Carl Kasten conference room, named in honor of the distinguished alumnus who was one of the original trustees and the first chairman of the ISU Board of Trustees,” said Dan Kelley ’70, president of the Alumni Association at the time.
Today, special interest groups continue to make significant contributions to the University in a variety of innovative ways as they work with or for the University through the Alumni Association, according to Purnell.
During the 14 years he served on the Alumni Association Board, Purnell said chapters and clubs formed around the country, providing alumni the opportunity to become re-engaged and return to campus. Affinity groups tied to the Big Red Marching Machine, Gamma Phi Circus, The Vidette, TV-10 and other campus entities—not to mention individual academic programs—formed and grew in number.
“Alumni gather for a variety of reasons in the name of the institution, based on where they live and on special interests” said Stephanie Epp Bernoteit, Ed.D. ’07, who served as the executive director of Alumni Relations from 2006 to 2012. “We have groups based on professions such as finance, business, and agriculture. There are young alumni networks focused on activities of interest to young single professionals who have more discretionary time and really want to network. Virtual networks meet online via Facebook and LinkedIn, helping alumni connect around friendships, affinities, and shared memories of times at the University.”
The focus of the association in recent years, according to Kelley, has been on “specific goals of building relationships with fellow alumni and involving students as graduating seniors, being sure that they are aware of, and welcomed into, the Alumni Association. The groups are effective in this regard.”
Alumni are also active and prominent in roles ranging from serving community organizations—such as Rotary and the Red Cross—to working in leadership capacities with prime employers of the community and state, and creating awareness of ISU and the exceptional quality of education the University offers students, Kelley said. They also serve on school boards, city councils, and as community professionals and legislators.
The power of alumni as a collective voice has been consistently demonstrated throughout the past 150 years. In 1929, alumni called for a campaign to lobby for legislative appropriations on the University’s behalf, which set a precedent for similar actions in the decades to follow. Graduates were further empowered by alumni services organized on campus, including the addition of an association business manager who oversaw the Quarterly, commencement reunions, special events, Founders Day, Homecoming, and a membership campaign.
The name change
In 1939, ISNU alumni along with alumni from other schools helped save the Illinois Education Association. The collective voice of graduates grew stronger over the years, as evidenced during two critical periods of controversy: the effort to change the University’s name and the continuation of ISU’s Agriculture Department when the program was threatened with extinction by the state legislature.
The proposed name change became one of the most divisive chapters in the University’s history. The debate began in the late 1950s. The proposal to change the institution from a Normal school to a university carried far-reaching significance. Hackles were raised on both sides of the question as the campus controversy raged.
The issue had profound implications for the very identity of “the Normal,” with some convinced it was threatening to the University’s mission and purpose. The notion of removing the designation of a Normal school, with its focus firmly on education, and shifting to a more diverse curriculum seemed unconscionable to the keepers of the flame: the senior faculty invested in a school for educators. Assistant Vice President Emeritus of ISU Administrative Services Dave Wiant found himself at the administrative center of an unprecedented campus roil.
“In 1958 and 1959, opinion was forming among those who did and did not want the University to be a Normal college,” said Wiant. He came to ISU from the University of Illinois with Robert Bone, who was president of the University during the time the name was debated.
“There were people who felt very keenly about Normal. There was a good bit of debate against the background of the fact that we were in the process of going from a Normal school. People don’t think about that today, but ISNU had been a teacher’s institution from the beginning, and this was during an era of turbulent change.”
The opposition to the status quo was led by Warren Harden. A young economics professor from Indiana at the time, he was perceived by the old guard to be a troublesome upstart speaking out of turn. But Harden, on the contrary, felt the University would stand to flourish by offering a wider curriculum that would accommodate other professional programs, not only education. He was convinced Illinois State would further benefit from access to additional sources of funding and by keeping step with the times.
The establishment faculty had built their careers and reputations on the rock solid foundation of teacher education. They had seen ISNU rise to the top as a national leader in the field, and consequently regarded Harden’s notion as folly. They were adamant against the change.
Although other Normal schools existed, none had quite equaled the stature and reputation of ISNU. The education faculty members were by no means keen to relinquish such a prestigious advantage. In diversifying, they saw not extended greatness, but a real possibility of failure and dissolution of all ISNU stood for.
“Those who were against it and wanted it to remain teacher education were basically the top women on campus, because I think they felt their status wouldn’t be as important as it was,” according to Steele. “They were also thinking of the history and long time major purpose of ISNU, not just themselves.”
Wiant remembers well the resistance from female faculty. “In their broader view, they believed that their security was threatened if we became a university,” he said. “Well, there was no real threat to them at all of that nature.”
Newer faculty members feared that the University’s advancement was being hampered by over-specialization, and was limiting to curricula and funding. They were eager for the freedom in teaching a wider curriculum they believed a name change would bring.
“Whatever you did, it had to have an education component in it,” Harden recalled. “If you wanted a master’s degree, you had to have six to eight hours of education, which was limiting if you think of a master’s degree as 32 hours and the writing.”
Despite the opposition, Harden persevered as the driving force behind the change from ISNU. He later served as vice president of Business and Finance for the University, which he helped to create with the historic name change.
“I was very pro changing the University, and so when I became president of the local chapter of AAUP, one of my first things I said was, ‘We’ve got to change the name of the University.’ The people who were opposed to that did say I had ulterior motives. In fact, I was trying to get the ISU name changed and then the functions changed. In other words, broaden the curriculum so you could get a major in history without taking a thousand education courses and that type of thing.”
Harden was not alone in wanting ISNU to become more. “Many people no longer wanted to be a normal school,” said Wiant, “and there was substantial effort by some of the alumni in pushing the University status—not a teacher’s college—but the beginning of Illinois State University. Although many alumni were loyal to the teachers’ college and wanted it to stay that way, there were many more who were delighted to see it becoming a university. For the most part, alumni were for the change and actively supported it. There were groups that were basically in support of increasing the recognition of the University at the time of the name change.”
The two factions battled on bitterly, in silence, covert discussion, and open debate. Opinion in favor of keeping the Normal school model did not seem likely to change until Harden found reinforcements for the cause among his top students: Charles Dunn ’62 and James Koch ’64. Both have been named a Distinguished Alumnus, and each has been inducted into the College of Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame.
Dunn and Koch agreed with Harden’s view that a name change could only be good for the University. They envisioned it would bring an infusion of new ideas to campus and enable students to prepare for other professional careers.
In their opinion, the University would retain its stature in education and gain the flexibility needed to adapt to changing times. With that in mind, Dunn and Koch—both of whom served as president of the student body while undergraduates—spread the word and marshaled student opinion on the side of change. They did as Harden had hoped, charging the campus with enthusiasm for the measure.
At the same time, the demand for a more diverse curriculum was becoming apparent with a growing trend in admissions.
“The big picture with the name changing, new faculty, and the thrust of more students at that point was that ISU only had about 2,500 students,” Wiant said. “In the summer and fall of 1958, an administrative committee was created comprised of myself, Preston Ensign, and John Sealock to formulate a 10-year plan focused on the move to grow into a full and complete university, not a teachers’ college.
“In that report, the projection for student enrollment by 1967 was estimated to be 6,600. When we took the draft of committee and met with President Bob Bone, as he reviewed our proposed document, he insisted that the number be changed,” Wiant said.
“With difficulty, he finally accepted putting in the estimate at 6,000 students rather than 6,600. He thought it was an overestimation, not an underestimation. And so we reduced the number in the 10-year plan. In 1967, there were more than 11,000 students on campus. Nobody realized the University was going to grow that large that rapidly. But from 1958 to 1967, it went to roughly 3,500 students and then to over 11,000. And to have been a part of it—well, it was very exciting,” Wiant said. “We were no longer that sleepy little teachers’ college, and there was substantial involvement from alumni in promoting university status.”
When it became clear that the majority opinion on campus was behind the name change, it was up to a group of elected campus representatives to state the case to the Illinois State Legislature. The change was approved on August 23, 1963, when then Illinois Governor Otto Kerner signed the required legislation. It took effect on January 1, 1964, at which time the institution that had been known as ISNU for 107 years became Illinois State University at Normal. The name was quietly abbreviated later that same yaer to become Illinois State University.
During the transition, the institution’s approach to being more than a Normal school of education evolved as the University began recognizing departmental degrees in agriculture, psychology, economics, and other academic areas. More attention was given to departmental changes. Shortly after that, the College of Fine Arts was founded.
“From 1959-1961, with the change during the first four years, the University started building a different alumni,” Wiant said. “There was an expansion of programs and departments, and there was loyalty to those colleges because of it.”
Today, there are six colleges: Arts and Sciences, Applied Science and Technology, Business, Education, Fine Arts, and Nursing. Collectively they offer undergraduates 67 programs in more than 188 fields of study to create 165 bachelor degree options. The graduate school has approximately 39 master’s degree opportunities, two specialist, and nine doctoral degree programs, as well as numerous certificate offerings.
“Dr. Bone was supportive,” said Steele “although sort of hands-off about it. He had the University in mind and not only teacher education. He was there when it happened, but Warren Harden was the one that pushed the wheel.”
According to Wiant, Bone was “waiting to see what was happening, and it became really apparent that we were no longer going to be a Normal school.” He credits Bone for realizing that “teacher education was significant, but so was the new university concept.”
In 1961, Illinois State Normal University was reborn as Illinois State University, on the verge of unprecedented growth and a burst in enrollment that surpassed all expectations. The name change also re-energized alumni, who saw with the addition of departments and an expanded curriculum new possibilities for recruiting students seeking an education for pre-med, pre-law, business, the arts, and areas of professional specialization other than teaching. As a result, alumni recruitment was on the rise, and funding from other sources began to increase apace.
The fight for agriculture
The power of alumni in an advocacy role was demonstrated yet again when steps were taken to eliminate Illinois State’s Department of Agriculture. Former Ag Alumni Association President Dave Fowler ’78 recalls the time.
“The Board of Higher Education for the state had decided in 1991, based on then 10-year-old information, that the Ag Department at ISU was not viable, was unprofitable, and lacked sufficient numbers of students,” Fowler said. When it became clear that legislative action was pending to shut down the department, word went out to the agriculture alumni community. Graduates were asked to speak out and enlist others in the fight.
Fowler got busy contacting his friends in LaSalle County. Other alumni rounded up support for the department in their own districts and counties, as did a majority of the alumni in their respective communities. Opposition started to form under the strong leadership of President Wallace, who stood up against the decision.
The alumni, then led by Agriculture Department Chairman Reginald Henry and alumni board members, met as a group with select influential alumni and legislators. Among those were then Sen. John Maitland Jr., Rep. Gordon Ropp, Rep. Bill Brady, and Rep. Dan Rutherford ’78.
“The Ag Alumni Association members sent numerous letters of support to the Illinois Board of Higher Education and legislators, and eventually the IBHE backed away. Board members knew these politicians. Together, they went to Springfield and prevailed upon them to consider the current facts,” Kelley recalled.
“Dr. Henry had all the facts and figures and presented them at the meeting, and through that collective effort, we were able to save the department. It was a University-wide effort, and we had administrative backing. The agriculture alumni as a whole were together as a group to get the decision overturned,” said Fowler. “The Board of Higher Education was surprised to learn that their information was wrong.”
The department not only survived but grew, and today is on the forefront of teaching sustainable technologies and innovation.
“Dave Fowler was key in that movement of mobilizing and organizing,” Todd said, praising alumni for saving the department. “They lobbied and provided documentation. It was during a time when finances were under duress.
“It made a difference as to what type of institution we became,” Todd said, calling the effort “one of the most concrete examples of what alumni can do for a university.”
In 2011, the Agriculture Department celebrated its 100th anniversary. That same year, a record number of companies came to campus to recruit students for agricultural careers, according to Bloomington’s newspaper, The Pantagraph. Among them was Alicia Ackerman ’09, who sought students for her current employer.
“There are fewer farm kids these days,” Fowler said, “but the department has grown to embrace ag-related specialties such as horticulture, landscaping, a pre-veterinary program, and new sustainable energies. The professors they have are on the leading edge of change. Thanks to the leadership of ISU President Al Bowman, we’re one of the leaders in the field, as are some other departments.”
“There have been points in time when there has been a kind of urgency because of whatever was happening at the University,” Bernoteit said. The challenge to the Agriculture Department and the decisive action by its alumni to save the program was clearly one of those historic moments.
In 1984, then Director of Alumni and Parent Services Carol Morris ’79, M.S. ’82, sent a letter to ISU alumni with news that the University had set a record high enrollment of slightly more than 20,000 students. Morris urged graduates to recruit high school seniors in their area who showed promise.
As alumni imparted the considerable professional advantages of the University to students, graduates further extended their outreach as ambassadors. Today, recruitment continues to receive strong emphasis by alumni.
“I fly my ISU flag pretty high,” said Jones, who considers recruitment an important part of the alumni mission in paying forward the advantages of an ISU education.
The ISUBCA is a leader among alumni groups supporting scholarships and recruitment. Group members partner with other alumni at gatherings for prospective minority students, where Jones enjoys addressing prospective students. She proudly tells them she is an alum and shares what the ISU experience is like, including the advantages of alumni support, career opportunities, and the ISU network. Jones distributes ISU “care packages” of her own creating, containing Redbird souvenirs, information, and campus gear. She also frequently speaks on campus.
“Just having people recognize successful presenters who are ISU alums helps them to see that people are being very successful with ISU degrees,” she said. “Those intangibles are more important to me than the financial support, which is important, but if you never tell anyone you went to ISU there’s so much more you can do as a resource.”
Once in the Redbird Network, the possibilities for jobs and connections are seemingly endless. “It’s a joy to make this kind of outreach consistently,” Jones said. With alumni as such strong ambassadors, “it’s no coincidence that ISU is one of the top two universities in the state that met their enrollment goals” for the 2011-2012 academic year.
“The Alumni Relations office has made a priority of involving alumni in recruiting potential students, as well as colleges and departments in contacting alumni,” said Bernoteit. “Music alumni teaching around the state, as one example, are able to recommend prospective students who might be interested in music performance or music education and then bring them to campus to audition for an opportunity.” The collaboration applies across the academic spectrum.
“The Ag Department helps in recruiting students, too,” said Fowler, “especially through alumni who are ag teachers. I might know someone who is looking at colleges, and I will talk to him and try to steer him to ISU. And alumni come to campus to present to classes.” he said. “A lot of what alumni do goes on behind the scenes.”
Past President of the Alumni Association Gary Tiffany ’74 agrees. “One of the primary goals of alumni is to recruit the finest students for our world-class university,” he said.
Along with recruitment, alumni play a crucial role in providing private support for the University. One of the most influential ways they impact the campus community is through financial assistance for promising students who may lack the means for a college education.
“We have different groups that have established relationships with scholarship recipients they are funding,” said Williams. “The Black Colleagues Association maintains a connection with their current scholarship recipients, and there is a lot going on from the Alumni Association perspective.”
The ISUBCA embarked on a campaign of giving scholarships to talented incoming students in 1987, and since then has awarded 76 scholarships to 66 students. “Some are renewable scholarships for a certain grade point average, and it has helped attract better qualified students to the University,” according to Purnell. “We are grateful to have the opportunity to do this. It has helped increase the retention rate and the graduation rate. Students feel better about Illinois State across the board because of the support alumni have given.
“They understand there’s an alumni group to support them financially and mentor some of the students on campus. We do keep in touch with the scholarship students and encourage them to do their best,” Purnell said. “Renewable scholarships are one of the methods. So the students have responded by earning better grades.”
One ISUBCA scholarship recipient, Ronnell Robinzine ’09, graduated magna cum laude and went on to law school at the University of Florida College of Law. His success story is only one of several.
“When the Black Colleagues Association saw the progress students had made, they became more interested in being supportive,” Purnell said. “We received more donations from members of the group for the University. Members have been more active in returning to campus at Homecoming and in being more involved with the University.”
There is a ripple effect, Purnell said, noting that the ISUBCA’s first scholarship recipient has come back and supported the organization. As a result, the organization was able to sustain 10 or 12 scholarships by 2012 in collaboration with the University.
“Multiply that commitment times the many satellite alumni groups scattered around the country that help provide scholarships, and it adds up to a sizeable resource of financial support for deserving students who might otherwise miss out on the opportunity of a first class education.”
In addition, collaborations between alumni of different departments have served the double purpose of creating reunion opportunities and funding scholarships at the same time.
“Ag and sports alumni have collaborated on fundraising events, some of which supported scholarships,” Fowler said. “Several sports reunions were among these successful efforts to bring back alumni from as far back as the 1930s.”
The first of two such successful events was organized in 1991 and brought back stellar Redbird basketball players, including Doug Collins ’73. The second such event was held in 1996—both in collaboration between Athletics and Department of Agriculture alumni.
“It brought back alumni to renew acquaintances they hadn’t seen in 20-30 years,” said Fowler, “and both were fundraisers. Some projects are done collaboratively between departments and some independently.”
Summerrise views such a commitment to support the University as a matter of course. “You have to give back—whether it’s financial, time, or meeting with students.” Alumni often find that in the process of giving back, they themselves benefit.
Members of the Alumni Association Board of Directors agree. In the spring of 2009 members began discussing the Illinois State University Alumni Association Scholarship, which was in place by 2010. The fund is just one of many ongoing outreach efforts.
“The ISU Alumni Association has been active in recruiting students, sponsoring student welcome events in several cities each summer for incoming freshmen, and has established an Alumni Association Scholarship with a goal of a $1,000,000 endowment,” Kelley said.
The scholarship is designed to provide assistance to students who exhibit outstanding academic achievement, leadership, and financial need. The association is committed to building an alumni endowment to fund multiple renewable scholarships for deserving students.
The program helps incoming freshmen, graduate students, community college transfer students, and distinguished seniors. The first recipient was Philip Carter, who entered the University as a freshman in the fall of 2010. A music education major, he expressed the appreciation all scholarship recipients experience.
“Receiving it means a lot to me. I worked hard in high school not only academically, but to be involved with organizations and be a big part of them. I put my whole self into them,” Carter said. “This is a big payoff for those efforts.”
Since its founding, Illinois State has been known and praised for the individual attention students receive. During her graduate school law program at Emory University, Jones realized the quality of ISU’s individualized attention. “I was not intimidated by Ivy grads. The training and education I received at Illinois State made me on par with the best. That’s when I realized the impact of my degree at Illinois State. ISU gave me the foundational tools to be a success wherever I go.”
Alumni so appreciate their Redbird collegiate experience that they work as graduates to help provide the same TLC to current students. Many alumni say mentoring is one of the most important and rewarding ways they can help students succeed.
“The mentoring alone is a signal facet of an ISU education. Not only do you get a superior quality education, you also get guidance and advice for your professional career after graduation,” said Summerrise. “You always felt as though support is available and someone is willing to help you.”
He recalls the unstinting encouragement from faculty members who constantly told him that as a minority student, he had a great opportunity to make a contribution. “They were so supportive, I felt like I couldn’t fail. I had a wonderful time at ISU.”
Alums in the classroom also have an impact, as Fowler noted. “Giving and contributing take many forms. Many alumni today are drawn back to the classroom to share their professional wisdom with students.” He advises students to reach out to alumni in their area of interest, as does Groezinger, who notes that “the value of the school has grown by leaps and bounds because of what the alumni have done.”
A series of seminars called “From Bookbags to Briefcases,” sponsored by the Honors Program, brings alumni to share their own professional experiences. Graduates offer advice on what to expect in the professional world, including the value of alumni contacts in the job search.
Others open their offices to create internship experiences and set aside time to participate in weeklong events held annually within each college to showcase for students professional opportunities within a given field. Countless alumni contribute by serving on advisory councils that shape the academic curriculum at the departmental and college level across the University. They devote their time and expertise to award-winning national programs, such as the University’s Mock Trial team.
While much of the mentoring work done by alumni takes place on campus, the connection between alumni does not end at commencement. Graduates job searching or settling in to a first step on the career ladder as a new member of the alumni network find continued support from fellow Redbirds.
Professional networking gained credibility and popularity during the 1970s, along with campus support for professional outreach. A letter from then Alumni Association Director of Development and Alumni Relations Milt Weisbecker stated that “new services and programs will continue to be developed…student placement, career orientation, and intern programs are ways in which alumni…can assist their alma mater.”
The message is unchanged today, as alumni remain engaged with the campus community to keep the priority on helping individuals reach their potential personally and professionally.
“The main thing about the University is the people,” said former Media Relations Director Roger Cushman ’62. “People are what make the University, as they make lifelong friends here.”
For Groezinger, it was the caring attitude of alumni that made all the difference. “I am from a small town, so a place where my entire town could fit into Redbird Arena is a bit overwhelming.” Attending her first ISU Homecoming as a freshman, the presence of friendly, outgoing alumni made her feel immediately at home. “They were like grandparents.”
She recruits and helps students prepare for jobs and the career market. On one of her many visits back to campus, she spoke at a Student Involvement Recognition Ceremony and was impressed by the humanitarian work a student group was doing. “It’s really the students that are the passion of my heart,” she said. “The day you graduate, your connection with the University and students doesn’t end there.”
“The opportunities for alumni to make a real difference have never been greater,” said Bernoteit. “The need has never been greater or more important. To all alumni, we would say there is an opportunity to make a real difference. President Bowman has shown expert leadership in guiding the University in a positive direction. Just think what we can do in the future.”
Alumni and the ISU “brand”
Successful alumni and high-caliber students reflect, in no small measure, the efforts of the Alumni Association in promoting the University and contributing to the public’s perception of the institution that has evolved to provide the premiere undergraduate education in Illinois.
Myriad prominent ISU alumni have contributed to the reputation of the institution, including leaders and achievers from every discipline on campus. Each, by their example, helps build and promote Illinois State as an educational environment fostering excellence that reaches back to the University’s founding in 1857.
Frank S. Bogardus, class of 1896, wrote in a 1907 volume of alumni reminiscences: “The Normal school convinced me that there is such a thing as live teaching, and it gave me the professional ideal. I learned to believe in the possibility of achievement, in the value of struggle, and in the inestimable treasures of scholarship.”
This same level of appreciation still exists within the campus community today, and especially for alumni who value being a part of something much bigger—the Alumni Association.
As much as the University has relied on this cadre of graduates to date, the need for alumni involvement will only intensify in the years to come. As the ISU Alumni Association embarks on the next 150 years, what is the most important thing alumni can do?
“I would say, give,” said Williams. “And giving takes different forms for different people, because 186,000 alumni are at different stages in their lives. Some have more time to give than others, and that’s important—to share their experiences as students and professionals with our current students—and to give money.
“Currently, the state provides around 18 percent of the University’s budget. I don’t know if people recognize that or not. That’s part of the reason why tuition, not just at Illinois State but at colleges and universities across the country, continues to rise. Costs aren’t decreasing, they’re actually increasing as the amount of support we’re receiving from state and local government continues to decrease,” Williams said.
“It is important for alumni who are able to give financially to do so because the education we received at Illinois State was stellar, and we want to be able to assist students currently enrolled at Illinois State to have that same experience without having a huge debt burden upon graduation. That’s why giving money is so important, and then talents as well.
“Some people are not necessarily comfortable speaking to a group of students or a group of alumni, or may not be in a financial position at this time to give money, but there may be something that they are able to provide, whatever their talents may be,” Williams said. “So, if I had the opportunity to speak to all 186,000 alumni, I would ask them to find a way to give back to the University, either with their time, their talents, or their treasure.”
Doing so reinforces bonds of friendship, changes lives, and opens doors in a tradition that began 150 years ago when members of the Class of 1860 planned the first alumni reunion. Since then graduates have become a great cloud of witnesses who not only attest to the grandeur of the University’s past, but are prepared to lift Illinois State even higher in the years that lie ahead.