The fine arts and Illinois State alumni took center stage at Thursday’s Founders Day, as special guest Governor Pat Quinn announced $54 million in funding for a new Fine Arts Complex.

The annual Founders Day festivities—traditionally a celebration of the University’s heritage and traditions—instead began at the Bell Ringing Ceremony with a focus on the future. Invoking Abraham Lincoln’s ties to the University, Quinn announced the long-awaited news of the Fine Arts Complex capital investment, which will replace or renovate Centennial East, Centennial West, and the Center for Visual Arts.

The Bell Ringing crowd erupted into a standing ovation.

“We believe in the arts. They stir the soul,” Quinn said. “So this is a pretty good Founders Day.”

The announcement was welcome news to the more than 1,100 students and 160 faculty and staff members in the College of Fine Arts (CFA), as well as alumni. The new state funding comes from the Illinois Jobs Now! capital construction program. More details are available on the Media Relations website.

Sean Hayes honored

Founders Day also marked the start of a yearlong celebration of the Alumni Association’s 150th anniversary, culminating at Homecoming in the fall. One of the former Redbirds who traveled back to campus Thursday was acclaimed actor and producer Sean Hayes, a former CFA student who received an honorary Ph.D. at the Founders Day Convocation and was one of 100-plus bell ringers earlier in the day.

“By the way I’m dropping the honorary as soon as I leave here,” Hayes told the audience at Braden Auditorium.

Sean Hayes talks

Actor Sean Hayes talks to College of Fine Arts students on Founders Day.

The irreverent Hayes, who rose to fame as the sarcastic Jack McFarland on the sitcom Will & Grace, kept the crowd laughing during his 10-minute speech that preceded the University’s awards presentation for staff, faculty, and alumni.

Hayes began by thanking everyone who was involved in selecting him for the degree, and “finally Avanti’s, for providing me with acid reflux since 1992.”

Hayes came to Illinois State in the late 1980s on a piano performance scholarship. He studied music and acting and was instrumental in forming the Theatre of Ted, a registered student organization specializing in underground theatrical performances.

Hayes said he was a doctor of philosophy, his own philosophy. He and others he knew at the University had formed their own philosophies on what he described as a nurturing and safe campus, where he was allowed to be open about his homosexuality for the first time.

“Back then, different was OK in Normal, Illinois,” he said. “It was normal.”

He said his own philosophy is based on the premise that “anyone can control their own success.”

“No one is better than anyone else,” he said. “You just have to become a figurer outer.”

He also had advice for those seeking a career in entertainment: “Don’t do it. It’s hard. It’s filled with heartbreak. It takes forever. And it has the power to crush your spirit. Now after hearing that you still want to do it—you will. And you will probably be very successful. Why, because it’s part of your genetic code. It’s part of your DNA. You can’t not do it.”

Other alumni recognition

Other Redbirds were honored at the Alumni Association’s 150th Anniversary Luncheon. Illinois State’s Executive Director of Alumni Engagement Doris Groves shared the multitude of ways in which alumni help today’s students—from offering internships, to speaking at campus events like Business Week, to hosting “meet and greets” with prospective students.

“The fact is, our alumni give back every day of the year,” Groves said.

One of those contributions is the Alumni Association Scholarship, which is given to three or four students every year. One of the recipients, junior psychology major Jade Kestian, told the luncheon crowd how the scholarship helped her navigate a difficult year, caused by health problems that forced her to quit her part-time jobs and incur unexpected medical and travel costs.

“And yet, I’m still financially stable. … This school has made this difficult phase of my life that much easier,” Kestian said. “It’s a reminder of what I’m capable of, and what I hope to attain in the future.”

A posthumous honorary degree was bestowed on J. Michael Adams ’69, a former president of Fairleigh Dickinson University. Adams died June 21, 2012, of acute myeloid leukemia.

Later Thursday, six Illinois State alumni and friends were honored with Alumni Association Awards for their contributions to the University.

GALLERY: More photos from Founders Day.

Kevin Bersett can be reached at Ryan Denham can be reached at