'81 Central grad: Use technology, but keep your head up

'81 Central grad: Use technology, but keep your head up

This weekend, two former Urbana Tigers and a pair of one-time Central Maroons will join Roger Ebert, Bonnie Blair and other local legends as Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation honorees. Leading up to Saturday night's gala, we're telling their stories. Up today: Jim Wicks, Champaign Central Class of '81.

You love your smartphone, but will you walk through life staring down at a 5-inch screen?

Not if Jim Wicks can help it.

Lift your head up and keep your eyes wide open. (And wearable technology can help you.)

As senior vice president of consumer experience design at Motorola, Wicks leads the group that is responsible for the industrial-design user interface of its products, including the sleek and round Moto 360 "smartwatch" expected to debut this summer.

"It's a cool area," he said.

The Champaign-Urbana Schools Foundation on Saturday will honor Wicks, a 1981 Central graduate, with its Distinguished Alumni Award.

Much of what Wicks does is involved in the area of smartphones and, in recent years, more so in the area of wearable technology like the Moto 360. The watch can tell time, give you directions, update your email and more.

"I really find that space extremely interesting, because I believe the smartphone is like the Swiss Army knife of our time," he said.

It can do so many fantastic things, he said. However, "way too many people are walking around with their heads down ... not experiencing life."

Hands-free and wearable technologies (like watches and in-ear devices) can remove barriers for people, keep their heads up and their eyes wide open, he said.

The Champaign native has been with Motorola for about 13 years, and prior to that, he was with a company called Sapient. He also was in consumer design at Sony for many years, working in Japan, New York City and San Francisco.

While at Central High School, Wicks said he knew he wanted to go into design, but he wasn't sure what kind of design.

"I was a relatively introverted person," he said. "I had friends and felt comfortable there. For me, it was a good base in which to feel comfortable as you're learning."

Students could make mistakes, learn from them and keep going, he said.

"A high school is such an expression of the community around it. I think it's fantastic when it's diverse and it's inviting to a broad set of values," Wicks said.

Many people at Central influenced him, including his football coach, the late Tommy Stewart, and assistant coach Gene Ward.

Wicks said school officials created a positive environment. Stewart, he said, was a disciplinarian but "he genuinely he cared about the kids. Not because this is the star running back or linebacker. There was a real sense of caring for everybody."

Early on while at Central, Wicks found himself with a scheduling conflict. On the same night, he had baseball tryouts for the Babe Ruth League and an event with the Spanish Honor Society.

He ended up going to the Spanish event, which at the time may have seemed like an odd choice. Wicks, also a football player, had two older brothers who also were involved in sports.

Choosing the Spanish event over the baseball tryouts was "eye-opening," he said.

Wicks ended up not getting onto the team he wanted. However, "it made me realize, there's a lot more really great experiences outside of sports."

Wicks continued to cultivate his interest in art and design. His father, Eugene Wicks, was a professor and head of art and design at the University of Illinois. In his role as director of the School of Art & Design, Wicks' father also promoted international programs and encouraged experiencing and learning about different cultures, he said.

Wicks would go on to major in industrial design and graduate from the School of Art & Design. He later earned a graduate degree in design from Nihon University in Japan.

Wicks lives in the north Chicago suburb of Lake Bluff with wife, Susan, and daughters Katy and Allie.

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