Gary Gemberling ’63 spent his career creating. He launched his own companies and used his expertise to help other businesses—everything from tomato farming to oil wells—build their own success.
Now Gemberling is turning back to his alma mater for his next creation—a leadership gift commitment to the College of Business (COB) that will impact students and professors at Illinois State for decades to come. In what will be one of the largest individual gifts in the University’s history, Gemberling will create new student scholarships and two endowed professorships, and launch a new entrepreneurship startup fund for student-run businesses, among other priorities.
“We are so fortunate for Gary’s loyalty and generosity,” said interim Dean of the College of Business Gerry McKean ’72, M.S. ’75, Ph.D. ’85. “Gary’s investment in the college is vital to our continued pursuit of excellence.”
Gemberling grew up in the tiny Illinois town of Armington, with a high school graduating class of just 17. The business administration major found his niche at Illinois State, thanks to professors and student involvement opportunities. Both laid the groundwork for what would become a successful career that allowed him to give back to his alma mater in many ways.
“Illinois State changed my life completely,” Gemberling said. “The satisfying part of making this gift comes from the fact that I can see what impact ISU had on me. I know many, many other students have been impacted by what this university has done too. I want to see that continue.”
After serving in the military during Vietnam, Gemberling started his career with certified public accounting (CPA) firm Arthur Andersen in Chicago. His entrepreneurial streak emerged early, as he and two partners broke off and started their own CPA firm in LaSalle. Soon it was the largest CPA firm in downstate Illinois. He sold it and launched another, then another, then another.
In all, Gemberling held ownership interests in 25 diverse businesses. He served as chief financial officer of a five-company conglomerate with interests in manufacturing, mail order, and Internet marketing.
Gemberling returned to Central Illinois in 1989 and rekindled his Illinois State connection. A few years ago, he established and funded the Herbert Sieg Endowed Scholarship in the College of Business, and he played an integral role in creating the college’s minor in financial planning. The College of Business Hall of Famer is also on the Illinois State University Foundation Board of Directors, among other service roles.
After seeing the impact of his Sieg scholarship and the financial planning minor, Gemberling reached out to College of Business Senior Development Director Norris Porter ’88, M.S. ’89, about wanting to do more to help his alma mater. Gemberling’s family was already taken care of, so he decided to make a planned gift, with the college the beneficiary of the rest of his estate. Together Gemberling and the college’s leadership team agreed to strategic funding priorities—all focused on impacting students.
“The whole process was painless, and it was very satisfying because you could see what was going to happen to this money down the road,” Gemberling said.
Though it’s a planned gift, Gemberling is committed to also make annual contributions to the college right away, in part to support excellence in teaching and research by honoring faculty scholars. Assistant Professor Abhishek Varma is the inaugural recipient, in part because of Varma’s teaching that links investment theory to practice and his research background. The funding gives Varma additional resources to pursue research and teaching opportunities.
Gifts like Gemberling’s are essential to attracting and retaining top-notch faculty at Illinois State, Varma said. Simply put, major gifts differentiate a good university from a great university.
“This is what students pay for, the experience of coming into a classroom and listening to professors who are passionate, who are doing cutting-edge research, who can inspire students to think at the next level,” he said.
The impact extends far beyond just one professor.
Steven Taylor was the first recipient of a separate position, the Hobart and Marian Gardner Hinderliter Endowed Professorship, from 2012–2014. That funding supported many efforts, including a unique opportunity for two Master of Business Administration (MBA) students to work with Taylor and other faculty members on a qualitative study about business ethics. Because of the time and resources provided by the professorship, together they co-published an academic article about the study and recently presented it in Tokyo.
“If you’re interested in making an immediate impact on teaching and the reputation of the University, I cannot think of a better way than through professorships like these,” Taylor said.
Gemberling’s gift most directly impacts students through a seven-figure contribution to the College of Business Dean’s Scholarship Endowment, which will be used to attract and retain the most academically talented students and others who struggle to afford college, McKean said.
The George R. and Martha Means Center for Entrepreneurial Studies will also receive support to establish a student startup fund for viable and innovative business models, helping fulfill the college’s goal of graduating not just “great students, but great student businesses,” McKean said.
“Gary’s dedication to Illinois State is truly remarkable. He shares our vision and inspires us through his philanthropy,” said Illinois State President Larry Dietz. “He continues to lead by example. We are grateful for his generosity, which will benefit future generations of ISU students and faculty.”