Life Remembered: Longtime academic 'always faced his fears'

Life Remembered: Longtime academic 'always faced his fears'

URBANA — He was so lively, positive and proactive with his health, those who knew Paul Magelli Sr. well figured he'd be around forever.

"He's one of those guys you just thought was going to live to be 100 years old," said Jeff Brown, a dean at the University of Illinois' College of Business.

Mr. Magelli, a business professor and founder of Illinois Business Consultants, didn't make it to 100. He died Sunday at Carle Foundation Hospital after fighting damage to his lungs that occurred following heart surgery in July. He was 85.

Mr. Magelli had a long, decorated career in academia which featured stints at Wichita State, Drake, Metropolitan State and Parkland College, where he served as president from 1987-89 before moving across town to the UI.

Most recently, though, he drew attention for his quest to become the oldest man to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.

In 2011 he attempted the climb at the age of 79, though a variety of conditions prevented Mr. Magelli and his team from reaching the peak. Plans were in place for a return in August, but during a pre-climb evaluation, it was discovered that Mr. Magelli had two bad heart valves and narrowed vessels. He had surgery to fix these issues, but suffered damage to his lungs, which he fought during the final months of his life.

For his Mount Kilimanjaro climb, Mr. Magelli had teamed with doctors from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota to create an ongoing study of human adaptation to hypoxia, lung-fluid regulation and cardiac changes at altitude.

Mr. Magelli's identical twin brother, Pete, died at age 45 while playing basketball, and he soon learned after his brother's death that he had his own heart issues.

It was after this discovery that he took a greater interest in his own health, becoming the active, health-conscious man he was later in life.

His quest to climb Kilimanjaro stemmed from his desire to face his fears head on, according to UI colleague and close friend Raj Echambadi.

"He was actually afraid of heights and one of the things about Paul Magelli was he always faced his fears," said Echambadi, senior associate dean at the UI College of Business. "If he was on the 50th floor of a building in Chicago, he wouldn't look out the window because he was scared of heights, so the ultimate test of facing his fear was to go up Mount Kilimanjaro."

Mr. Magelli was one of 12 children born to immigrants. He came from a humble background — Dad was a coal miner — and was a nontraditional student at the UI, enrolling to receive a bachelor's degree and later a Ph.D. in his mid-20s.

After a career that saw him at various universities in the U.S., Mr. Magelli returned to the UI in 1990 where he worked in the College of Business for the remainder of his life. Even this past semester, as he battled his health issues, Mr. Magelli continued teaching a course in entrepreneurship at the UI. He'd Skype in from his hospital beds at Mayo and Carle and from home to continue serving his students.

"The last six months, after his heart-valve surgery, obviously there were some problems with his lungs and while privately he would tell me he's at 50 percent or 40 percent, he came alive when he talked to students," Echambadi said. "He taught his course until the day he died. That to me is the enduring testament of him."

The College of Business is working with Mr. Magelli's family, including wife Karolyn and children Merrell and Paul Jr., on planning a celebration of life memorial service in early 2017, when students return to campus.

In addition to starting Illinois Business Consultants, Mr. Magelli was instrumental in the MBA program and helped establish the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership through a grant from the Kaufman Foundation.

"And the list goes on," Brown said. "In the life of our college, he's had an enormous impact."

He was just as impactful outside the classroom, too. Later in his career, Brown said, Mr. Magelli decided he was no longer going to wear suits to work. He called a local boys club, told them his size and said any boys who needed suits to meet him and he'd give them his suits.

"Eleven more boys showed up than he had suits for and as Paul would do, after he gave out all his suits, he took those 11 boys to the store and bought them all suits," Brown said. "There are countless examples like there where he was so generous with his time, his money, his intellect."

Echambadi recalled a time he and Mr. Magelli visited China on an official trip for the UI. On a day off, Mr. Magelli told his friend he was going to spend a few hours shopping. When he returned, he had "three or four suitcases" worth of goods he had just purchased. Echambadi assumed these were gifts for family and friends.

"He told me it was all for the University of Illinois people," Echambadi said. "The academic people, the civic service people, and he said it was our job to think about them because without their hard work we wouldn't be there spreading the word about the University of Illinois in foreign countries."

Even as he battled the health issues in what would turn out to be his last few months, Mr. Magelli was still determined to climb Kilimanjaro. He was planning to bring Echambadi along for the journey, too.

"He was always planning to come back and always saying he was going to start walking 5 miles in January and still wanted to go up Kilimanjaro," Echambadi said. "Until the last weeks, he faced his health challenges with a lot of optimism. He would talk about the great care at Mayo, the fantastic care at Carle and he would say 99.9 percent of the world would die to have the treatment and care he had."

Now, those close to him are talking about the resounding impact he had on their lives and the lives of countless others. On a recent trip to Shanghai, Brown said at least 20 people there stopped him to ask about Mr. Magelli when they learned he was visiting from the UI.

"You can't exaggerate the kind of impact he had on people. He was smart and gracious and cared so deeply about people. I honestly cannot think of anyone who had such a deep impact on so many people," Brown said. "He's one of the best human beings that ever walked the face of this Earth."

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