Tom and Claire Lamonica are alums who have been working and teaching on campus for more than 40 years. Despite their commitment to Illinois State, neither envisioned making a major gift to the University.
After attending the naming ceremony for the Brown Ballroom in 2005, Claire joked with the couple’s three children that “When we’re gone, you can donate the Claire and Tom Lamonica Memorial Broom Closet.”
When a letter arrived in the mail one day thanking the Lamonicas for 25 years of donations, there was disbelief. “How can we possibly have been giving 25 years ago? I was in grad school then. We were living paycheck to paycheck,” said Claire, M.A. ’83, D.A. ’96. Tom completed his master’s degree in 1988.
She later discovered Tom’s habit of emptying his pockets and saving the change until it reached enough to make a $25 contribution. That’s how their giving continued, with consistent gifts over the years to WGLT; the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology (CTLT); Athletics; and more as their careers progressed.
Claire worked as a high school English teacher, including at University High School, before becoming a faculty member and program coordinator at Illinois State. For the past eight years, she has served as director of the University’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology (CTLT). She will retire from that position in May. Tom worked in communications for Athletics for more than 26 years. Since 2006, he has been an instructional assistant professor and director of field experiences in the School of Communication.
When the Redbirds Rising campaign launched publicly in 2017, Tom and Claire began to seriously consider what shape a major gift might take.
“I’m the kind of person who looks at something big, gets overwhelmed and thinks, ‘Why bother?’” Claire said. “Tom is fortunately the kind of person who can do a little bit at a time to get to the really big thing.”
His thoughtful stewardship enabled the couple to make a $50,000 gift to create the Claire and Tom Lamonica Outstanding University Teaching Award. It rewards exemplary teaching by a member of Illinois State’s Administrative Professional (AP) or Civil Service (CS) workforce.
“We wanted to do a major gift from even before the campaign was publicly announced,” Tom said. “What it would be, that took a long time.” The idea for a teaching award came from Claire’s role as chair of the University Teaching Committee. The leadership group administers a series of outstanding teaching awards on behalf of the Provost’s Office.
“There are several awards for pre-tenured and tenured faculty, as well as graduate students, but only one award for non-tenure track, AP, and Civil Service teachers combined,” Claire said. “We wanted to allow more teachers to be recognized and rewarded for their work.”
University Marketing and Communications Assistant Director of Operations Tracy Widergren ’03, M.S. ’15, is a CS instructor in the School of Communication and an example of the type of instructor that the Lamonica award could benefit. Balancing her two roles is the most challenging, yet rewarding, part of her work at Illinois State.
“I feel privileged to play even a small part in the education of our students, but even more so, honored to be a part of their journey to becoming whomever it is they want to become when they leave this university,” Widergren said. “My students, current and past, are what keep me wanting to pursue both roles. They are amazing.”
Alumni Engagement Associate Director Rachel Kobus ’09, M.S. ’11 is another full-time staff member navigating teaching on the side. Like Widergren, Kobus is inspired by her students. “Connecting with them, watching them learn and better their speech skills, and being the person they go to for advice even outside of the classroom is what motivates me,” she said.
The load such instructors carry is easily understood and appreciated by Claire, who has held multiple AP positions, and Tom, who was a long-time Civil Service employee whose teaching fell outside of his regularly assigned duties. They know the difficulty of combining day-to-day work with additional teaching responsibilities.
“It becomes a real act of passion and love,” Claire said, noting that passion for teaching runs deep in her family. Three of her grandparents were university educators.
“Claire’s grandfather once told me that people on campus who have the ability to teach should all teach. That runs from the top down,” Tom said. “I think he was right about that. You feel more connected to the University as a whole. It’s very rewarding.”
As Claire transitions to retirement and Tom continues his dual roles in the School of Communication, the two have taken time to reflect on their Illinois State legacy.
“We hope we can inspire others to give to the University, and with the award enable the people who want to teach and think they can to succeed,” Tom said.
With their major gift during the Redbirds Rising campaign, the Lamonicas are now the kind of people they never thought they would become. They reached an unforeseen goal by staying true to their community-minded approach to philanthropy.
“That’s sort of been the ISU philosophy. We don’t accomplish larger goals with a few people giving a lot of money, we do it with as many people as possible giving whatever they can,” Tom said.
Becoming a major donor has also allowed the Lamonicas to continue their lifelong work of supporting educators of all levels.
“Every teacher is a developing teacher,” Claire said. “We’re all trying to get better.” The Lamonicas’ gift helps ensure that Illinois State teachers from all areas of campus will have that chance.
Nominations for all the Outstanding University Teaching Awards, including the Claire and Tom Lamonica Award are due no later than May 12. Learn more about award requirements and the annual timetable by visiting CTLT.IllinoisState.edu/Awards/University.
Those closest to Illinois State also contribute to the University. To learn more about giving opportunities for faculty and staff, visit Giving.IllinoisState.edu/opportunities/faculty-staff.