Bob Bone: Pivotal president shifted ISU purpose and plan
More than four decades have passed since Robert Gehlmann Bone served as Illinois State’s ninth president, and yet he is far from forgotten. His legacy as an exceptional educator, administrator, friend and family man is still appreciated on campus—especially during the celebration of Founders Day each February.
The annual day of reflection inevitably leads to praise and respect for Bone’s efforts and ability to move ISU forward. The decisions he made during his decade as president positioned Illinois State to become the University it is today.
Bone took office in 1956, just as the University was beginning its second century. The campus had grown to 25 buildings and enrollment was near 3,000. When he retired in 1967, Old Main had been demolished. New construction totaled 15 buildings and 10 additions. The work, completed at a cost of $60 million, tripled the campus class size.
The student body swelled to nearly 13,000, with the number living in residence halls jumping from 1,032 to 5,070. Six administrative units were created and doctoral programs added as the institutional mission shifted from strictly teacher education. The new direction was cemented when the name was changed from Illinois State Normal University under Bone’s watch.
More impressive than the fact Bone navigated a restructured, repurposed, and revitalized institution with a soaring enrollment and expanded reputation was the way he accomplished the feat. Despite such monumental and often contentious changes, Bone made Illinois State a warmer, friendlier place.
“President Bone was the kindest, most empathetic man I have ever known,” said Syracuse Chancellor Emeritus and Distinguished Alumnus Kenneth “Buzz” Shaw ’61, who was awarded an honorary degree from ISU in 1987.
“He viewed his presidency as a call to duty, which is why he was ‘Mr. ISNU’ when I was a student and later ‘Mr. ISU.’ He cared about his university and its people, resisted growth for growth’s sake, and worked to ensure that it would remain a caring institution long after it experienced growing pains and the move to a multipurpose university.”
Others who knew Bone and his wife, Karin, concur that outreach was their forte. A consistent presence at university events, the duo had an infectious friendliness, sense of humor and enthusiasm.
“He genuinely liked people and believed it was important to connect with them on a personal level,” said Roger Cushman ’62.
Now retired from his position as ISU’s director of Media Relations, Cushman was an undergraduate when he met Bone. He knew Roger’s name and spoke as if they were already friends.
“He was famous for greeting faculty and students by name at his first campus reception. It was an amazing feat. Everyone thought he had a photographic memory, although later he said he had spent hours studying yearbook photos so he could match names to faces,” Cushman said, praising Bone as “the epitome of what a college president should be.”
“He was distinguished in appearance, dignified in manner, yet down to earth and utterly without pretense. He was affable, friendly, warm, and possessed a great sense of humor,” Cushman said, recalling how Bone stood out at Redbird games in his red vest, matching socks and a bow tie.
“It amazed me how he could maintain his dignity while riding a camel in a Homecoming parade, or dressing in outlandish costumes while appearing in student stunt shows,” Cushman said. “But he did.”
Bone had such a welcoming manner that he would wait until the campus was full of students before taking a regular morning walk. Distinguished Alumnus James Fisher ’56, M.S. ’57, still recalls struggling to keep up with Bone on those jaunts across the Quad.
“He was the most naturally charismatic person I have ever known,” said Fisher, who served as Bone’s assistant before becoming president of Towson State University. “He cared: about students, faculty, staff and others, and defined his every decision in terms of the best interests of students.”
Many were shocked to have Bone help them move into a residence hall, which was just one of many ways he exemplified his belief in lending a helping hand wherever possible. Such demeanor resulted in students adoring their president.
“Twice they thronged the Quad to give him surprise greetings,” Cushman recalled. “Once on his return from abroad to the tune of ‘Hello Dolly’—substituting the words ‘Hello Bobby’—and another time on his birthday.” It was a milestone celebration as he reached 60.
Bone’s campus persona was a genuine representation of the man he was at home, according to the youngest of two sons, Robert “Chip” Bone Jr., M.A. ’82.
“He was very much the same person in private that he was in public,” said Chip, who works in ISU’s Conference Services. “What you saw was who he was. It wasn’t just a mask he wore in public. He genuinely liked people and believed it was important to connect with them, and he really cared about students.”
That fact was just one trademark of Bone’s life, which began in Springfield in 1906. He grew into an inveterate traveler, lifelong educator and global citizen. Soon after graduating from Wooster College, he led student trips around Europe. He lived and taught for three years in Alexandria, Egypt. Upon returning to the U.S., Bone completed a master’s at the University of Illinois, where he also earned a doctorate.
During WWII he completed officers’ training school in the Army Air Corps and went on to train pilots in Texas. Bone married Karin in 1944. That same year he journeyed overseas again as a member of the Headquarters Staff of the U.S. Forces in Europe. It was there he helped found the American University at Shrivenham, England, where he served as head of the history department.
Bone held administrative positions at the University of Illinois as well, where he taught for 20 years and was so loved by students they voted him the “most popular teacher on campus.” He was assistant to the provost when he accepted the presidency at Illinois State.
“He saw that he could implement his ideas and make a difference,” said Chip, who was only 9 years old when his family relocated to Normal. “And I think he saw it as an interesting challenge.”
In a sealed letter written on the eve of his inauguration, Bone outlined his priorities: to create a long-range planning committee, including a subcommittee on future academic dreams; employ all people, especially administrators, to the best of their abilities; govern with humility; and give credit to others. He also focused on the scope of academic programs, writing that the Education Department must be “greatly revised if we are to move ahead.”
“His greatest legacy was allowing change,” said former Vice President of Finance and Planning Warren Harden. He points to Bone’s ability to build consensus from a position of neutrality on the most contentious issues as integral to his success, even as his own personal convictions were rudder and compass to progress and change.
While many of the campus old guard were committed to the Normal school focus on education, Bone saw a brighter future for a diversified, liberal arts university. He foresaw change and above all, remained committed to the students. They ultimately were decisive in helping advance his goals.
“He encouraged students to participate and be heard, take an active role and join campus committees, the Vidette, and other organizations to make their opinions known,” Harden said.
Their involvement was especially crucial to the debate surrounding the University’s name change. Harden worked closely with Bone on the issue as a faculty member in the Economics Department and president of ISU’s American Association of University Professors chapter.
Changing opinions was a slow and deliberate business. Bone consequently insisted that all campus opinions be heard and varying perspectives examined. The campus debate stretched from 1959 until the change was approved in August of 1963 by then Illinois Governor Otto Kerner.
By the time it took effect on January 1, 1964, the accomplishment left many in awe of Bone’s ability to maintain civility and restore unity while moving the University forward so significantly.
“That he did so with consummate skill and astute diplomacy was key to his lasting success. To this day, I don’t think a lot of people realize that one of his main goals from the outset was to delete ‘Normal’ and change it to a four-year liberal arts university with a doctoral program,” Chip said. “It wasn’t in the founding documents that ISU had to be a teacher’s college.”
Bone did not, however, arrive on campus with certainty as to what he could accomplish. “I pray that these goals, if they are good, will be realized before I leave,” he wrote. “I think most of them will be, as most of the personnel of this school are as eager as I to push toward ‘The Promised Land.’”
“I think all of his goals were realized,” said Chip, who is pleased that his parent’s legacy remains strong on campus so many years after his father’s presidency and death. Bone died in 1991 at the age of 84. Karin lived another six year to the age of 89.
The University still recognizes the top undergraduate students as Bone Scholars, the Karin Bone Athletic Study Center serves student-athletes, and the Bone Student Center was so named to honor the couple’s dedicated service to Illinois State.
Perhaps the most significant reminder of Bone’s remarkable presidency is the Hand of Friendship given by the Class of 1967. The bronze sculpture stands on the Quad just outside of Hovey Hall as a tribute to the unique leader, who Shaw described as “a wonderful role model, but impossible to emulate. There is,” as he said, “only one Bob Bone.”
Decade of change
A timeline of President Bone’s legacy:
1956: Bone presidency began; enrollment near 3,000
1957: Student Union, Schroeder Hall, and Metcalf Elementary School dedicated
Committee of Nine on Long Term Planning convened; enrollment closed early due to overcrowding
1958: Old Main demolished
Administration restructured into six areas; plans for doctoral program presented
Freshmen no longer required to indicate intention to teach
1959: Cardinal Court and Centennial Hall completed
1960: Hamilton-Whitten halls opened; 4,500 enrolled
1961: Governor Otto Kerner approved $15 million for buildings for classrooms, a high school, greenhouse, University Farm structures and a Milner Library annex
First integrated male housing co-op created; Turner Hall completed
1962: Atkin-Colby completed; Eyestone schoolhouse acquired through donation
1963: Doctoral programs added; ground broken for Tri-Towers; 6,637 enrolled
First fully transistorized language laboratory opened; first police force created
1964: University name changed from ISNU
Campus converted from coal to gas for heating; grading made easier with machines and punch cards
1965: U-High completed; ISU consisted of 19 departments
1966: Three colleges existed: Arts and Sciences, Education, and Applied Science and Technology; Honors Program began
Hewett and Manchester Halls completed; Preview began for incoming freshmen; 9,699 enrolled
1967: Watterson Towers began; most registration done by computer
Bone presidency ended with planned retirement; nearly 13,000 enrolled