The Big 150 with Jeff D'Alessio, Dec. 31, 2017

The Big 150 with Jeff D'Alessio, Dec. 31, 2017

With just a few hours left in the UI's 150th birthday year, we're putting a different twist on this week's Big 10. Presenting 150 things we learned over the past year about Alma Mater's school ...


No, Dontae Skywalker is not a character in the new "Star Wars" movie. But in his last job, the 2004 UI grad was every bit as popular.

Before becoming a staff sergeant in the Army National Guard, Skywalker was a member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, or The Old Guard, as the Army's oldest active-duty infantry unit goes by. They perform many functions, from conducting military ceremonies at the White House to providing funeral escorts at Arlington National Cemetery.

They're also the soldiers who keep a 24-hour vigil at the Tomb of the Unknowns, a cherished role Skywalker played for a few years earlier this decade.

The experience had a humbling effect on the former sport management major from inner-city Chicago, even if he didn't stay quite as anonymous as most tomb sentinels.

In November 2011, while in town for a game against the Redskins, then-San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh took his team on a field trip to Arlington. Skywalker played tour guide, giving an inspiring 20-minute talk on the monument that's dedicated to servicemen who die without their remains being identified.

"What I witnessed was a commitment to excellence," Harbaugh would say later. "That's something we know about in terms of football."

A week later, during a game against the Giants, the coach returned the favor, signaling in a new entry in the 49ers' playbook: a 20-yard pass that became known as The Skywalker.


If you can eat it, there's a decent chance a former Illini either ran the place that serves it or founded the company that made it.

Just as alums were once in charge at McDonald's (Jim Cantalupo '66) and Red Robin (Steve Carley '74), they're now running the show at Portillo's (Keith Kinsey '76), PF Chang's (Michael Osanloo '91), Pancheros Mexican Grill (founder Rodney Anderson '90) and Gertrude Hawk Chocolates (Bill Aubrey '89).

Twenty years after co-starring alongside Dick Butkus on Illinois' 1963 Big Ten champion football team, Lynn Stewart ('65) and five hearty-partying friends opened a restaurant that they couldn't get kicked out of. They'd call it Hooters.

The vice president of R&D at Campbell Soup — (not that)Jeff George ('86) — is an Illini. So are the recently retired executive chef at Kraft (Harry Crane '69), the VP of global sourcing at Krispy Kreme (Champaign native Eric Mathis '87) and a James Beard Award winner you may remember from 2010's "Top Chef: Masters" (Debbie Gold).

Even the CEO of went to school here (Kenneth Chessick '65).


Of the 1,142 Illini who took us on a stroll down memory lane, not a one mentioned Unofficial St. Patrick's Day.


The lone alum to step up to the plate in the major leagues last season finished with a batting average of .091. (Then again, Tanner Roark — whose stay here was cut short by academic issues — is a pitcher).

But off the field, you could assemble an all-star lineup of former Illini picking just from the franchises that made the 2017 playoffs. It might look like this:

1. All-American ace Brett Weber ('98), who has built a reputation with the New York Yankees as the best ump call-challenging video replay monitor in the bigs.

2. Champaign's own Dan O'Neill ('99), senior director of business operations for the World Series champion Houston Astros.

3. The Washington Nationals' Mike Rizzo ('82), the lone UI alum with a GM title in the four major professional team sports.

4.Jenny Westerkamp ('08), who has put her food science degree to creative use — she's a nutrition consultant on retainer by both the Cubs and Bulls.

5-6. A pair of number crunchers from the Class of '04 — Sky Andrecheck, senior director of baseball R&D for the Cleveland Indians, and Tom Koch-Weser, the Astros' manager of advance information.

7. Also in a made-for-Moneyball job: Kevin Liu ('11), manager of business development and analytics for the National League champion L.A. Dodgers.

8. Former wheelchair basketball star Paul Ward ('08), coordinator for disabled services and guest relations with the Yankees.

9. Steve Arnieri (assistant coach, 1983-87), whom Rizzo enjoyed having as a Springfield Avenue housemate: "He still works for me as a special assistant to the president general manager."


No fewer than 18 former UI students or professors head up colleges and universities across the U.S. Among them: a Krannert assistant house manager turned Catholic priest who now serves as president of the school with the No. 1-ranked college basketball team (Villanova's Peter Donohue '90) and South Korea-born Mun Choi ('87), who in August was appointed president of the University of Missouri system. He became the fifth former Illini currently in charge of a Southeastern Conference school. The other schools: Auburn, Florida, LSU and Tennessee.


If you add up the $2.5 million in winnings that World Poker Tour Player of the Year Faraz Jaka ('07) had by age 24, and the $30,000-a-head donation required to attend the 49th birthday party Chicago casino magnate Neil Bluhm ('59) threw for Barack Obama, and the $1 billion price tag on the 93-story Chicago skyscraper Chinese developers paid Jeanne Gang ('86) to design, you'd still be $6,197,470,000 shy of the net worth Forbes lists for Flex-N-Gate owner Shahid Khan ('71).


We know of at least 21 living former university presidents and chancellors who studied or worked at the UI, including the big bosses at Cal, Clemson, Syracuse and Texas.


Women with UI diplomas have left more than a couple cracks in glass ceilings over the course of their careers. There's Carol Ross Barney ('71), who in 2003 became the first female architect to design a federal building — in Oklahoma City, following the 1995 bombing. There's Kris McMasters ('78), whose ascension to CEO at CliftonLarsonAllen marked the first time a woman led a top 25 accounting firm. And there's Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks ('64), the first female to head up the American Bar Association.


The first Asian-American woman to moderate a debate for national elected office? That would be 1995 College of Media grad Elaine Quijano, once of WCIA and now of CBS, who earned bipartisan raves for keeping then-VP candidates Mike Pence and Tim Kaine on point last year.


The first African-American woman to have a net worth of $1 billion? That would be BET co-founder Sheila Johnson ('70), who'll surely swing by her old sorority (Tri Delta) when she returns in May to receive an honorary degree.


So, you think you can dance? Bet you can't boogie like Alyssa Epstein ('03), who six months after being diagnosed with an early form of breast cancer and undergoing a double mastectomy, reclaimed her spot on the chorus line for the Radio City Rockettes this holiday season.


For every former Illini who catered to a more, shall we say, mature audience (RIP, Hugh Hefner), there's Paul Rudolph ('89), the vocal music director for "Sesame Street"; former Disney toy designer Mike Lichodziejewski ('92), who manages the preschool gaming division at Hasbro; and Christy Marx, whose screenwriting credits include cartoon versions of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and "G.I. Joe."


New to the CEO ranks in 2017: Patrice Louvet (MBA '87), who took over at Ralph Lauren in July after a 28-year run at Procter & Gamble.


The short list of household-name companies also being run by former Illini: State Farm (UI Law grad Michael Tipsord '84), Hickory Farms (Diane Pearse '80), BP (Bob Dudley '78), Rosetta Stone (Jon Hass '88), women's clothing brand Eileen Fisher (run by the UI grad it's named after) and Huffy (Centennial alum Bill Smith '78, who signed off on his submission for our project with this zinger: "Long live the Chief!").


And then there are the companies that once had former UI students as CEOs. This could be a top 150 list of its own, so we'll just stick to the biggies: GE (Jack Welch '60), GM (Tom Murphy '38), Shell Oil (Steve Miller '67), BET (Robert Johnson '68), Crate & Barrel (Barbara Turf '64), Midas (Alan Feldman), Petsmart (Phil Francis '68), Kodak (George Fisher '62), John Hancock (Jim Benson '68), Tesla (Martin Eberhard '84), Ticketmaster (Irving Azoff), AT&T Wireless (John Zeglis '69), Joseph A. Bank (Neal Black '76), Bon Ton (Kathryn Bufano), Komen for the Cure (Nancy Brinker '68), Rebecca Taylor (Beth Bugdaycay), The Pampered Chef (founder Doris Christopher '67) and The Weather Channel (Michael Kelly '79).


The UI alumni club includes more than a few townies who went on to big things. Among them: economist, author, professor and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity Rich Vedder (Ph.D. '65), whose dad Byron was publisher/GM of the Champaign-Urbana Courier: "I delivered newspapers in the 1000 block of West California, now part of the campus. Paradise came every couple of weeks, when I got to collect for the paper from a customer who to me and nearly everyone on campus was a living God — Dike Eddleman, recently graduated from Illinois. Collecting from Dike, ordinarily a hated chore, was exciting."


In a close call, the eatery mentioned by the most alums as their favorite C-U spot of them all was ... Garcia's (26), followed by Deluxe Lunch & Billiards (21) and Papa Del's (18). No surprise what the overall winner was: the Quad (87).


In a romp, Kam's (43) was the most-mentioned bar. Trailing it: Murphy's (26), the Red Lion (13) and the White Horse Inn (12), the Karaoke Wednesdays hangout of Fischler Hockey Service Operations Director Rini Krishnan ('13): "It had all the elements of an ideal Hump Day night out — cheap drinks, cheap dates, a giant American flag, a biker with a karaoke machine, clean bathrooms and a collective high tolerance for brutal renditions of Celine Dion. Also, $5 pitchers. That place was truly the epitome of my college experience. I don't know what that says about me, but I'll take it."


By now, you surely know the story of the UI's most beloved Pulitzer Prize winner, Roger Ebert ('64). But you might not know that four more recent alums have been awarded journalism's top prize in the last decade alone. That includes two in 2016: the Tampa Bay Times' Leonora LaPeter Anton ('86), part of a three-reporter team that exposed violence and neglect in Florida mental hospitals, and Deputy Political Editor Julia Westfall ('02), part of the L.A. Times staff honored for its reporting on a mass shooting in San Bernardino.


Just as Oscar-winning director Ang Lee ('80) developed a Burger King Whopper-a-day habit at Illinois — since the only other American grub the Taiwan transplant could bear the taste of was at KFC on Neil Street, "too much of a schlep from where I lived," he told us — future infomercial king Ron Popeil thought he was eating five-star food at his favorite C-U stop in the '50s. "The fast-food restaurant Steak 'n Shake," he said.


Between them, they didn't last six years but the UI boasts several big-time short-timers: Popeil (here for under a year), the Rev. Jesse Jackson (one and done), "Scarface" actress Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (two years) and Conan O'Brien sidekick Andy Richter (two).


On the short list for coolest job: senior director of library and archives at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the title Andy Leach (MS '00) has held since 2008.


Odds are, something in your online browsing history leads to a place touched by a UI grad.

— Visited a GoFundMe page recently? The popular crowdfunding platform was co-created by Andy Ballester, from the Class of 2003.

— Used PayPal to charge a Christmas present? A couple of UI Engineering Hall of Famers — Max Levchin ('97) and Luke Nosek ('96) — were among its founders.

— Checked the score of the latest Bears beatdown on As of July, the league's director of digital operations is former UI economics major Peter Shin.

— Watched a "Saturday Night Live" video on YouTube? For the latter, you can thank co-founder Steve Chen ('02). As for SNL, it falls under the purview of fellow alum Robert Greenblatt, NBC Entertainment's Rockford-raised chairman.


The first Florida governor of Hispanic descent? That would be former Crystal Lake Park area resident Bob Martinez ('64), who remembers moving here for grad school and having this reaction: "I thought hell had frozen over. It was cold and gloomy. My wife and I, both Tampa natives, had never been in real cold weather."


It seems only fitting that the university that long ago gave us the creator of the soap opera — Irna Phillips ('23) — also churned out a slew of grads who've made a nice living in that genre. There's Abby Cunningham from "Knots Landing" — played by Donna Mills, who skipped school after one year here. There's Alexis Davis on "General Hospital" — aka Nancy Lee Grahn, whose acting debut came as a UI freshman in 1973 (Mimi in "Guys and Dolls").

There's also Tina Lord from "One Life To Live" (Andrea Evans '77) and Sean Cudahy from "All My Children" (the character of Fithian's favorite son, Alan Dysert '73).


Hash Wednesday is no more, but the legalize-marijuana movement is alive and well, thanks in part to a trio of heavy hitters who attended Illinois:

— Steven Hager (MS '79), the Urbana High grad and former High Times editor.

— Debby Goldsberry, co-founder of the United Cannabis Collective.

— Keith Stroup ('65), founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), whom trouble seemed to find on campus in the '60s: "I was kicked out of school for a year for what was termed 'conduct unbecoming a student when a fraternity brother and I drank too much beer one evening and ordered a lot of pizzas to be delivered to a sorority across the street, then boarded ourselves up in the chapter room when the police came to investigate.”


While we’re on the subject of weed, did you know that the actress who played the stepmother in “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” is an Illini (Amy Stoch ’12)?


The most mentioned fraternity by alums on our panel: Alpha Tau Omega, where 7-foot German center Jens Kujawa adapted to “cold feet hanging out of the covers and chest-high shower heads”; Harry Combes captain Bill Small (’63) bonded with “town boys —  Charlie Younger and Dick O’Neil from Champaign, and the late Gil Garman from Urbana”; and All-American defensive end Bo Batchelder (’67) remembers receiving the worst news possible:

“In 1966 at the ATO fraternity, we found out that Bruce Capel — friend, fraternity brother, Fighting Illini teammate — died in Vietnam. We learned the realities and horror of war.”


Thirty-six years after Fazlur Khan (’53) designed what was then the world’s tallest building (Chicago’s Sears Tower), fellow UI alum Bill Baker (’80) engineered one 1,272 feet taller (Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, No. 1 in the world since 2009).


Former first lady Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff is an Illini (Allyson Laackman MS ’81). Same goes for Hillary for America’s campaign COO (Beth Jones ’96), former Attorney General Eric Holder’s chief speechwriter (Riley Roberts ’08) and New Jersey’s 54th governor (former Goldman Sachs CEO Jon Corzine ’69).


And in the interest of equal time, the GOP’s list of heavy-hitting former Illini includes Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter (Landon Parvin ’70), the Trump campaign’s senior economic adviser (Stephen Moore ’82) and George H.W. Bush’s labor secretary (Lynn Morley Martin ’60) and chief of staff (Samuel Skinner ’60).


Just because NASA shelved its shuttle program doesn’t mean the UI, alma mater of six astronauts, is done with space.

The next big mission could come from Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has so many UI grads on the payroll — mission manager Katie Burke (’86), lead flight software engineer Josh Sulkin (’06) and dynamics director Kevin Wu (’06), to name just a few — it ought to have its own alumni chapter.

Or, perhaps it will come from Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which employs Illini as chief spaceport adviser (Steve Landeene ’85), lead operations engineer (Colin Bennett ’06) and flight sciences manager (Virag Shah ’07), among others.

Or, maybe another nation will take the lead. If it’s Singapore, Lynette Tan will play a big role. The 2002 UI grad serves as executive director of her home country’s Space & Technology Association.


As family fame goes, these three alums run second to their significant others:

➜ Financial advisor Patti Blagojevich (’87), wife of You Know Who.

➜ Artist Judy Belushi (’72), widow of Bluto Blutarsky.

➜ David Otunga (’02), a two-time WWE tag-team champion and Harvard Law grad who’s still known to many as Jennifer Hudson’s main squeeze.


131-133 When you interview a bunch of high-achieving alums, you hear a lot of stories about the Stacks, that rich, restricted corner of the library where billionaire software entrepreneur Tom Siebel (’85), Intel engineer Mohammad Haghighat (’94) and others with good enough grades to be allowed inside spent hours upon hours.

You never knew what you’d find in that spectacular space, says Gene Kritsky (’76), dean of behavioral and natural sciences at Cincinnati’s Mount St. Joseph University: “In 1976, when King Tutankhamen was all the rage, I got so focused on Egyptology that I carved out time in my schedule to go to the Stacks and peruse every book on Egyptology in the library. It took weeks.

“It was like an archaeological excavation for information. I did not know at the time that I would be living in Egypt in just five years. ... All I knew was there was this information treasure that I could not ignore, and if I found something particularly fascinating, I would reward myself with one of those incredible thin pizzas from the Jolly Roger.”


The first journalist to pen a sports column in the Wall Street Journal? That would be Frederick Klein (’59), whose “On Sports” column ran in the bible of business from 1977 to 2001.


A dozen spots around the world where you’ll find former Illini doing important things:

➜ Turkmenistan: Home to U.S. Ambassador Allen Mustard (MS’82) and his former WCIA newscaster wife, Ann Anderson.

➜ Kiel, Germany: Home to Riley Kerestes (’04), the son of two proud Champaign parents and the technical group manager at Caterpillar’s castings foundry.

➜ London: Home to Laurie Goering (’85), Thomson Reuters’ climate change editor.

➜ Beijing: Home to Thomson Reuters’ China breaking news editor, Vincent Lee (’07).

➜ Pyeongchang, South Korea: Home to February’s Olympics and Paralympics and the marketing manager who’ll promote them — Giyoung Young (’04).

➜ Nigeria: Home to Chevron subsea engineer John Oyelakin (’10), who got to check off an unusual item on his bucket list during his time at the UI, when he was assigned office space in the basement of the Mechanical Engineering Building: “Buildings with basements are rare in Nigeria; I’d never seen one all my life until I came to Illinois. Looking back, life in the basement day and night for those two years has formed part of my permanent memory of the U of I. Those tiny, elevated windows were the only connections to the outside world. The seclusion probably helped my focus on tasks at hand.”

➜ Bosnia and Herzegovina: Home for the past three years to Maureen Cormack (’79), a foreign service veteran and our country’s ambassador.

➜ The republic of Georgia, which in 2015 installed an Illini as prime minister — Giorgi Kvirikashvili (MS ’98).

➜ Kenya: Home to Urbana missionary Dr. Susan Nagele (’78), who has spent the past three decades caring for the sick and poor, earning her the Medal of Valor from the American Medical Association.

➜ Indonesia: Home to two-degree grad Sri Mulyani Indrawati (MS ’90, Ph.D. ’92), who’s in her second year as the country’s finance minister.

➜ Taiwan: Home to another two-degree grad — former premier Lin Chuan (MS ’82, Ph.D. ’84).

➜ Senegal: Home to 2015 UI Humanitarian Award winner Molly Melching (MA ’79), founder of a wildly successful, UNICEF-funded literacy non-profit.


You’ve probably heard that a couple UI students — Marc Andreessen (’93) and Eric Bina (’86) — were the brains behind Mosaic, the web browser that popularized the internet. But did you know that alums are also credited with creating ...

➜ The ABC drama “Lost” (showrunner Jeffrey Lieber ’91).

➜ The board game Operation (John Spinello ’64).

➜ The virtual yellow line you see on football telecasts, showing how far a team has to go for a first down (Sportvision Chief Technology Officer Marv White ’69).


Seems like every alum of a certain age has a stinky South Farms story to tell. We’ll leave you with this, from Big Ten Medal of Honor winner and former tennis star Stacy (Schapiro) Marks (’99): “I remember playing against Northwestern outdoors at Atkins Tennis Center. When the whiff of the South Farms came across, my opponent said ‘Eww, what is that?’ My coach responded: ‘Homecourt advantage.’”

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