Many of Rockford’s movers and shakers crowded into the Coronado Performing Arts Center to see eight Illinoisans -- including two from the Forest City -- receive the state’s top honor, the Order of Lincoln. Mayor Tom McNamara was among those who said it was a big deal.
“To think that the finest folks in Illinois are going to be recognized right here in Rockford is really special," he said. "To add icing to that cake, we have two Rockfordians that are also going to be honored, and so, it’s really exciting.”
Some out-of-town guests also were in attendance, including former laureate Ryne Sandberg, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and (judging by the number of people who wanted to take her picture) the audience’s biggest celebrity, Loyola’s Sister Jean.
After settling into their seats to the sounds of the former movie palace’s Grande Barton Organ, the audience was called to order by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling. Then came a procession of Lincoln Academy Laureates and officials onto the stage, accompanied by the Rockford Symphony Orchestra playing a brand new piece, “Shall Long Endure,” composed for the occasion by musical director Steven Larsen.
Following the invocation, Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem, Lincoln Academy Chancellor Stephanie Pace Marshall welcomed the crowd and set the stage for the ceremony.
“Each has been recognized before and many, many times," she said, "but this honor is different. It’s different because receiving the Order of Lincoln -- our state’s highest honor -- carries the name and enduring legacy of our greatest president.”
The RSO and choir performed “Illinois” the official state song. Then it was down to business. Each new laureate was introduced and decorated by Academy President and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner before giving a short speech.
Rockford native Emily Bear began by acknowledging her age – the musical prodigy is the youngest laureate in the Academy’s 54-year history – then gave a rejoinder courtesy of (who else?) Lincoln.
“Being held to the standard of Lincoln is about as hard as it gets for a 16-year-old," she said, "but I can definitely connect with this quote by Mr. Lincoln: ‘It is not the years in your life that count; it is the life in your years.’”
Bear spoke of the universal nature of music and how its possibilities had shaped her career and the lives of others.
She and the other honorees spoke not so much of their accomplishments but of the others in their lives – family, friends and teachers -- whom they said really were responsible for their presence on the stage. And, like Bear, they each cited Lincoln’s actions, words and character as inspiration.
The other honorees were:
- Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Dick Butkus
- YouTube founder Steven Shih Chen
- Scholar, author and educator The Rev. Michael J. Garanzini, S.J.
- Ariel Investments President and After School Matters Chair Mellody Hobson
- National agribusiness leader Edward L. McMillan
- World-renowned diabetes authority Dr. Louis Philipson
- Bergstrom Inc. Chairman and Rockford native David Rydell
It became clear as the night proceeded that all shared another trait – a willingness to use their talents and good fortune to give back to others. Gov. Rauner, reflecting on his fourth convocation, noted that willingness and called the laureates "the best of the best."
"Being up on the platform with these ladies and gentlemen, you feel very, very humble, I'll say that. Very humble," he said. "Tonight is very personal to me. Every one of our honorees has had a major impact on me or my family."
After his words, the RSO, choir and audience joined in a rendition of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Chancellor Marshall reminded everyone of the importance of what they had witnessed.
“We need these stories," she said, "and those of our former laureates, to show us what we look like when we put ‘we’ before ‘me’ and ‘us’ before ‘them,’ and when we embrace the unfinished work of our time, and literally call our 'better angels' to walk beside us.”
With that, the Convocation was ended, but the night wasn’t over.
A patriotic concert followed in honor of the late Thomas Johnson, another Rockford native and former chancellor of the Academy. It started with familiar pieces by Morton Gould, John Williams and John Philip Sousa. The finale was the world premiere of a piece by -- and featuring -- new laureate Emily Bear, called “And Forever Free,” thus ending the Lincoln Academy of Illinois event as it began and often was during the evening, with a uniquely “Rockford” flavor.
The Lincoln Academy was established in 1964 to identify and honor exceptional Illinoisans whose contributions have brought honor to the state and have advanced the betterment of humanity. Laureates receive the Order of Lincoln at a convocation ceremony held each spring.
The Academy provided the following biographies of the 2018 Laureates:
Emily Bear of Rockford, at just 16 years of age, has achieved groundbreaking success as a pianist, composer, songwriter and chart-topping recording artist in a diverse collection of styles. She made her professional debut at the Ravinia Festival at the age of five and has performed at many of the world's best-known venues including Carnegie Hall, the White House, Lincoln Center, Montreux Jazz Festival, and the Hollywood Bowl.
She has recorded seven albums; was named the Herb Alpert Jazz Composer of the Year in 2016 and 2017 by the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP); and has appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, ABC Nightline, Dancing with the Stars, NPR, The Disney Channel, and numerous international broadcasts. A documentary about Bear has attracted more than 32 million views on YouTube and received an Emmy Award.
Richard M. "Dick" Butkus of Chicago was drafted by and played nine seasons for the Chicago Bears of the National Football League in 1965 after a stellar career as a student athlete at the University of Illinois. He is widely regarded as one of the best linebackers of all time. He was inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979 and has been recognized with virtually every award available in his sport at both the collegiate and professional levels.
Following his career as a player, Butkus appeared in more than a dozen movies and a variety of television shows. He supports various charitable activities through The Butkus Foundation, Inc.
Steven Shih Chen, an alumnus of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora, was the co-founder and chief technology officer of YouTube. In 1999, Chen arrived in Silicon Valley to join PayPal after studying Computer Science at the University of Illinois. On his first day at PayPal, Chen met Chad Hurley, who would become his YouTube co-founder. Chen was instrumental in building YouTube into a viral video phenomenon. He was the CTO of YouTube during its major growth phase and helped lead YouTube through the Google acquisition for $1.65 billion, less than a year after launching the site. As the key technologist, Chen developed the company’s massive data centers and helped build YouTube into a premier entertainment destination and one of the most popular websites on the Internet today.
Chen has received several prestigious honors and acknowledgments from the business and entertainment communities, including Business 2.0’s “50 Most Influential People,” GQ’s “Men of the Year,” Time magazine’s “Best Invention of the Year”, and Fortune’s “Most Powerful People in Business.” Chen joined GV from AVOS, the incubator he founded with Hurley in 2011.
Father Michael J. Garanzini, S.J., is a distinguished university administrator, professor, author, and scholar who has spent the majority of his career working in higher education. He served as President of Loyola University Chicago for 14 years and then assumed the role of Chancellor in 2015. This year, he returned -- as a visiting research faculty member -- to Fordham University, where he had taught prior to coming to Loyola. During his tenure at Loyola, Father Garanzini brought the university out of debt in just a few years and initiated a series of construction projects on both of Loyola’s city campuses. Very active in community service, Father Garanzini is well known for his work on behalf of children and families. He has published many books and articles on issues such as child and family therapy, moral development, and Catholic education.
In 2011, Father Garanzini was appointed to serve as the secretary for higher education for the Society of Jesus in addition to his continued service as chancellor of Loyola. In this new part-time role, Father Garanzini assists in coordinating and championing Jesuit higher-education issues around the world.
Mellody Hobson is the President of Ariel Investments, a Chicago-based firm that is one of the largest African American-owned money management and mutual fund companies in the United States. A nationally recognized voice on financial literacy and investor education, she is a regular contributor for CBS News, the Tom Joyner Morning Show and Black Enterprise magazine. A Chicago native, Hobson also chairs the nonprofit After School Matters, which provides high quality out-of-school programs for Chicago teens, and co-founded Ariel Community Academy on Chicago's south side. In 2015 Hobson was named to Time magazine’s annual list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. She also was recognized as one of Ebony magazine’s 20 Leaders of the Future, World Economic Forum’s Global Leaders of Tomorrow, and The Wall Street Journal’s 50 Women to Watch.
Hobson is chair of The Economic Club of Chicago board of directors and a board member of The Chicago Public Education Fund, George Lucas Education Foundation, Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, and Sundance Institute. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, she serves on the executive committee of the Investment Company Institute’s board of governors.
Edward L. McMillan was born and raised on the family farm in McDonough County, Illinois. A graduate of the University of Illinois, he is a leader in state and national agribusiness -- notably President and CEO of Purina Mills. McMillan has served on many industry boards of directors plus extensive civic and philanthropy organizations, including Chairman, Board of Trustees, University of Illinois System.
Louis H. Philipson, M.D., Ph.D., is Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics in the Section of Endocrinology Diabetes and Metabolism at the University of Chicago and a leading world authority on diabetes mellitus. He is the Founding Director of the Kovler Diabetes Center and President of the Chicago Community Leadership Board of the American Diabetes Association. Dr. Philipson was a co-discoverer of insulin gene mutations causing neonatal diabetes and helped make the University the Chicago the national leader in the study of monogenic diabetes. He also directs research in preventing and treating Type 1 diabetes. Dr. Philipson completed his Ph.D. and medical training at the University of Chicago and is a graduate of Harvard College.
David Rydell is Chairman of Bergstrom Inc., a designer and producer of climate systems for the commercial-vehicle industry. A graduate of Augustana College in Rock Island, Rydell assumed the position of President and CEO of Bergstrom in 1986 and Chairman in 2011. Along with Bergstrom’s management team, he helped position the company for global production capabilities and recognition as a technology leader in no-idle heating and air conditioning in its marketplace. A native of Rockford, Rydell has served throughout his career -- and continues to serve -- on the boards of many community and not-for-profit organizations. He also supports those organizations and others through the family and company foundations.