Part 50: Tales from a Polish immigrant, a Paralympian and acclaimed professors

Part 50: Tales from a Polish immigrant, a Paralympian and acclaimed professors

In Chapter 50 of our yearlong series commemorating the UI's 150th birthday, we asked 10 grads who've gone on to big things to tell us about the Campustown places and spaces that made the most indelible impressions on them.

Chicago artist still painting at 90

"I have memories of my time at the U of I — most wonderful, some not. In the 1940s, the U.S. was at war and there were few men on campus. As a teenage male student, I found the ratio of five girls to one male very attractive, but in 1945, the men came back on the GI Bill, and my good times were over.

"I remember Pete Seeger performing in the Auditorium in 1948. First time I heard the word 'hootenanny.' I made friends, some of whom I still have contact. They are in their 90s, like me.

"But I also remember Champaign and Urbana as being Jim Crow communities. A fellow student, Cecil Nelson Jr., was black and grew up in Champaign. He was an outstanding artist and Air Force veteran. I remember going to the Coed movie theater with him and being forced to sit in the balcony.

"When I protested, he told me not to make waves. When art students and faculty went together to a local restaurant, the waiter refused to serve us because Cecil was present, even though he had gone to high school with him.

"So my memory is a mixed bag."

2013 Distinguished Alumna, School of Art and Design; now a professor at University of British Columbia

"It all began on the day I arrived in Urbana-Champaign in early September 1982 — on my first day in North America — carrying a small black suitcase, hoping and praying that my scholarship was still in place. I had been unable to leave Poland in time to attend the beginning of the academic year or advise the university about my circumstance due to the martial law restrictions in my country.

"A returning graduate student whom I met on a bus from O'Hare Airport helped me find the International Students Office, where I received both good and bad news: My scholarship was not canceled, but on-campus housing was no longer available and I had no place to stay. I was advised to check into a hotel and look for accommodations off-campus — an unrealistic option given that I had less than $200 at my disposal for the whole first month of my stay, until my first scholarship payment.

"This is when the U of I International Hospitality Committee stepped in and connected me with a family willing to provide emergency housing assistance. I was directed to wait in front of the office and, in less than half an hour, a scene unfolded in front of my eyes that made me feel as though I became a part of a Hollywood movie.

"A humongous, winged, pastel-green Cadillac pulled in front of the building and a lady wearing a matching color polyester suit and a gentleman with checkered trousers and a crisp white shirt adorned with a cowboy tie stepped out to greet me. I will never forget the feeling of relief when I slid into the back seat of the biggest car I have ever seen and was driven to their home in Urbana. Thanks to the extraordinary kindness and generosity of Dr. and Mrs. Simerl, with whom I kept in touch until they both passed away, I had a roof over my head and a nutritious breakfast for the first three days on my stay in the U.S., until a dorm room became available in Daniels Hall.

"Two U of I degrees later and an academic career filled with opportunities that I would have not dared to think possible on that first day of my arrival at the U of I, I am more grateful than ever to all those at the university who made this journey possible."

Seaman Apprentice, U.S. Navy

"I made a group of close friends at Forbes Hall, all of whom live at various places across the country. We still talk on a regular basis.

"One weekend as we were headed out to the bars, we jokingly flagged down a stretch limo. It actually just got finished dropping off the ambassador of some country, but that didn't stop the driver from offering us a ride. He picked us up and dropped us off door side at Joe's, then insisted on opening the door for us, saying: 'This will get you so many girls tonight,' as the line waiting outside Joe's stared. We had a blast the rest of the night going bar to bar — Clybourne, Firehaus, Station, Murphy's and Legends.

"This particular night was actually chronicled in the Daily Illini because one person in our group was a writer."

YU RU ('10)
Data scientist, GE

"Urbana-Champaign is always very special to me. Before my child was born, I needed to find a name for him/her. I checked the whole Chinese dictionary and could not find a good one.

"I decided to use Na for a girl and Bin for a boy. Na is the last word in the translation of Urbana to Chinese, and Bin is the last word in the translation of Champaign.

"In the end, I had a baby girl named Na. I really hope that one day she will be able to study at the UI and visit all the wonderful places at Urbana-Champaign."

DON LOWE ('67)
Stanford Professor, 2016 Geology Alumni Achievement Award winner

"In 1967, there used to be a small, cheap steakhouse on South Wright Street near the corner with Green. Some of us grad students used to walk over in the evening for dinner.

"One evening, two of us were eating there when the grease on the back of the grill caught fire. It blazed up and the cooks couldn't control things and so they ordered everyone to evacuate. My friend and I loaded our food — steak and potato, Texas toast, small salad — onto our trays and hustled outside, only to find that we were the only ones to have taken our food. Guess that was the graduate student mentality.

"We sat on some grass nearby and watched the fire engines come while finishing our steaks. I am not sure what we did with the trays and dishes, but we did enjoy the show."

Director, Center for Adoption Studies at ISU

"As an undergraduate, my fondest memories were of the Bruce Nesbitt Cultural Center, aka the Black House. The cultural center was the home away from home — furnished with a couple of 'gently worn' couches, a piano, television and lots of open space for students to gather, work on homework, and on the weekends, dance to 1980s sounds of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Kool & the Gang.

"For many of us who were first-generation college students, the Black House was a place for us to fellowship, receive mentoring from 'Uncle Bruce' and the cultural center staff — Nathaniel Banks and Mrs. Harmon. Any day of the week, you might find a half-eaten pizza in the kitchen, or a few leftover snacks from a cultural event. The basement housed WBML, the student radio station.

"As the campus looks to build the new Bruce Nesbitt Cultural Center, the memories of the old building on Nevada will live on."

Geosciences Dean, University of Texas

"The Natural History Building had large replicas of prehistoric animal heads — I think they were mastodons — in the large first-floor hallway that contained part of the museum. They were mounted so that I could sit under them and write. No word processors back then.

"My office was visible from there, so I could have peace and quiet to write up my research while making sure I was available if necessary. But I was invisible to anyone coming by just to chat. The heads were quite old; they can be seen in a 1892 photograph of the exhibits in University Hall that were moved to the Natural History Building in 1909.

"I have fond memories of finishing my Ph.D. dissertation under their influence."

2-time Paralympian

"I remember going to my first wheelchair basketball practice at IMPE in 1983. I'd been invited by the coach and some of the team members to come and try it. They gave me a wheelchair to use, and I remember spending the entire hour chasing these world and Paralympic champion women up and down the floor, wondering just what the heck I was doing there.

"Brad Hedrick, who was then the coach, and later became head of DRES, was so encouraging, he sat me down and told me he wanted me to come back. That experience opened the door to a whole new life for me, as a Paralympic athlete and as a volunteer in the international Paralympic movement."

Northwestern professor won MacArthur 'genius' grant in 2014

"As an undergraduate living in the Six Pack, anything north of Springfield Avenue might as well have been on the other side of the planet. So, when I was asked to visit the Beckman Institute to interview with Professor Joe Lyding for an undergraduate research position in his laboratory, I was shocked to find this cathedral to science on the northernmost edge of campus.

"In addition to its soaring lobby, I soon learned that the Beckman Institute housed some of the most sophisticated scientific instruments on Earth. The ultra-high vacuum scanning tunneling microscope in the laboratory of Professor Lyding captured my imagination and inspired me to pursue a career in nanoscale science and technology.

"No offense to the Morrow Plots, but I believe that a U of I campus tour is not complete without a stop at the Beckman Institute."

Yahoo VP

"My great memories from the U of I are many but I suppose that I am most proud of making the daily morning trek my freshman year from Trelease, in the Florida Avenue Residence Halls, to Altgeld for a 9 a.m. calculus class Monday through Friday for an entire semester.

"As one friend reminded me, it was called FAR for a reason.

"I worked as hard in my studies to earn a B as I did to make it to every class on time with not one absence. While it fulfilled my then-math major requirement, more importantly the reflection time during those long walks to and from gave me time to think and reflect about what I really wanted to do with my life, or frankly what I did not want to do.

"And I knew it wasn't math — definitely not worth the journey, literally and figuratively speaking."

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