Novak enjoyed coming back to UI campus

Novak enjoyed coming back to UI campus

Robert Novak never missed a chance to come back to his alma mater, whether it was for an Illini basketball game, alumni award or to meet personally with English students.

Novak died early Tuesday following a battle with brain cancer.

Novak, a 1952 University of Illinois graduate, was proud of his English degree and in 1992 established the Robert D. Novak Scholarship to encourage English and rhetoric majors who show promise as writers.

"He was a firm believer in an academic degree for journalists," said Paul Osterhout, associate dean for advancement in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

"I've known him for 10 years, and I don't think he missed a year coming back to campus," Osterhout said. "His favorite thing was to meet the student who had his English scholarship."

In 2006, he established a $1.25 million chair in Western civilization at the UI, in the hope that students could learn about the influence of classical thinking as he had more than a half-century earlier while a student at the university. The position was to advance "the understanding and appreciation of major figures, works and ideas important to the development of Western civilization and culture."

"Although certainly the non-Western cultures have a lot to offer, I think that our country owes so much to its straight-line descent from the culture in all fields, starting with the ancient Romans and Greeks and through the European civilizations," Novak said at the time.

First to hold the position was classics Professor Jon Solomon, who worked at the University of Arizona before being hired by the UI. Solomon teaches Roman and Greek history, culture and literature.

Novak and his family returned to campus for Solomon's investiture ceremony, Osterhout said.

"He was just a great friend and a true orange and blue," Osterhout said of Novak. "He always knew more about Illinois politics and goings-on than I did, even though he was in Washington all the time."

Novak had a fierce persona as a political commentator, but "when he was here, it was just completely opposite," Osterhout said. "He interacted with students so well" and could converse with them about poetry, literature and other topics.

"He was very well-read, very personable," he said.

Novak once described his own academic achievements as "very uneven." In his memoir, "The Prince of Darkness," Novak wrote how his disappointment about not being named Daily Illini sports editor for the 1951-52 school year led him to skip his classes as a senior to go to work full time at the Champaign-Urbana Courier. He left school one hour short of graduation but was eventually awarded his degree in 1993. Larry Faulkner, then dean of LAS, explained that the UI gave him the single credit he needed because of four mandatory physical education classes he had taken four decades before for no credit.

"The real question," Novak wrote, "is whether anybody would have found the loophole for my degree if I had not achieved some prominence and become a generous donor."

Novak was awarded a UI Alumni Achievement Award in 1997 and spoke at the May 1998 commencement. He urged graduates to hold close to their Illini roots and use their education as a "bulwark against tyranny," according to News-Gazette coverage at the time.

He credited the UI for laying the foundation of his success and giving his immigrant family "passage to the middle class." His grandfather was a Russian immigrant, and his father was also a UI graduate.

"I was an Illini from birth," Novak told the students.