The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, Jan. 21, 2018

The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, Jan. 21, 2018

January being Big Speech Month — State of the Union on Jan. 30, State of the State a day later — we asked this week's panel: Who's the most impressive or inspiring speaker you've ever heard?

KAREN SIMMS
Champaign public speaker, trainer, consultant

"Jesse Jackson showed me that speaking to the heart can unite and inspire. I met him in Minnesota when he was running for president in 1988. Former Senator Paul Wellstone was his campaign chairperson. I was invited to accompany them to rally at a factory in northern Minnesota.

"The occupants of the room were 99 percent white and male, and many fit the 'North Country' stereotype. I remember wondering 'Why we are here?' I remember thinking 'This is not going to go well.'

"When Jackson started speaking, my fears seemed to be realized. The audience appeared cold and disengaged. I even heard a few derogatory words from naysayers mumbling in the back. However, Jackson was not affected. He kept talking; he hit his rhythm, and his cadence changed: here was a storyteller, a salesman, a charismatic preacher.

"His heartfelt words convinced the crowd that he understood their hopes and dreams — that he valued their labor. Before we left, that factory was filled with applause, handshakes and hugs — with chants of 'Keep Hope Alive.' I grew up memorizing speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but witnessing Jackson and Wellstone ignite that audience showed me a tangible glimmer of the dream."

JOE WHITE
UI's 16th president

"In the 1990s, I was in Capetown, South Africa. My wife, Mary, and I had a 1 p.m. appointment with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. We went to his office — a very modest, second-story walkup. We entered a happy scene in which he was leading a joyous rendition of "Happy Birthday," followed by a rousing talk.

"This was remarkable because he had spent the morning chairing a hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which perpetrators and victims of horrible crimes committed during South Africa's apartheid years came together to tell their stories and, to the extent possible, put the horrors behind them. In other words, the man exuding joy at the lunch hour had spent the previous four hours as a witness to unspeakable human depravity and suffering.

"I thought this was extraordinary. It taught me a lot about leadership.

"Our private meeting was also memorable. I'll never forget his firm conviction, which I share, that prayers from faith communities around the world played a material role in bringing about not only an end to apartheid in South Africa but one that was quite peaceful relative to the expectations that preceded it."

JOHN MURPHY
UI communications professor, expert on presidential rhetoric

"John F. Kennedy has impressed me so much as a speaker that I wrote a book about him. He was a remarkable orator partly because of his feel for language. In a lovely speech he gave shortly before his death, he lauded the poetry of Robert Frost and praised the role of the arts in public life. His love for the beauty and power of language was never more evident.

"Yet his greatest rhetorical achievement came in June 1963. In a little over three weeks, he gave what scholars voted three of the best speeches of the 20th century: the American University address calling for world peace, the civil rights address demanding equal rights for African Americans, and the Berlin speech, defining the values that would eventually win the Cold War.

"In each, he asked his audiences to see as others saw, to treat others as we would wish to be treated, as we 'would wish our children to be treated.' Wise words, then and now."

VIKRAM AMAR
UI College of Law dean

"Trying to remember the details of all the amazing, inspiring addresses I've been lucky enough to hear is nearly impossible — one of the biggest perks of being at great universities, and in the law, is that I get to attend remarkable oral presentations all the time. So I will focus my answer just on the last year here at the U of I.

"One who stands out is government scholar Norman Ornstein, who gave an invited Lincoln Lecture at the College of Law last spring. A compelling lecture generally starts with a compelling topic — in this case, the historical and demographic factors that have caused American democracy to be so fractious and dysfunctional these days — but what made Norm's presentation particularly effective was its balance, its nuance and its accessibility.

"The insights he offered would be valuable, usable and credible not just to seasoned law/history/political science professors across the ideological spectrum, but also to high school students taking a civics class."

DICK VERMEIL
After stints with ABC and CBS, coached St. Louis Rams to victory in Super Bowl 34

"Many years ago as a young coach, I heard Bob Richards — the Olympic pole vaulter from the University of Illinois — speak at the annual clinic they used to have in Palo Alto, California at the end of college football season. Very motivational."

LYNN HOLLEY
UI journalism professor

"The person I was most awestruck, impressed and very much inspired by was Anne Keefe, the first woman in talk radio in St. Louis. I listened to Anne on KMOX radio in the mid '70s and '80s when I lived in St. Louis, and she was my motivation to become a journalist. I wanted to be her.

"Beyond her smoky voice, she was brilliant, informed, insightful, articulate, fair and funny. But what I found to be most engaging about Anne was the fact she felt no need to act submissive or to be deferential because of her sex. Her listeners respected her for that. In her long and successful career, Anne was in a category all her own."

DON OWEN
Urbana schools superintendent

"The most memorable speakers for me came from the same event. In July of 2010, the American History Teachers' Collaborative held a summer institute on the civil rights movement.

"Julian Bond, the president of the NAACP, and Bobby Seale, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party, spoke about their roles in fighting for voting rights, social justice and economic justice for people of color. They also both gave their perspectives about how and why racism is so persistent in American society.

"Mr. Bond and Mr. Seale were dynamic, engaging and passionate about civil rights and social justice issues. They have inspired me to focus on issues of racial equity through not only examining my own implicit biases, but also examining institutional and structural racism in schools and in society."

JOHN MOZELIAK
President of baseball operations, St. Louis Cardinals

"John O'Leary, who is based out of St. Louis, is the most inspiring and thoughtful speaker I have ever heard.

"We all feel there are times when life is hard, when life is not going the way you want, when you feel you might quit. But after listening to John's story, hearing what he went through (after suffering burns on 100 percent of his body while playing with matches and gasoline a 9-year-old), it makes you realize our problems are not that bad.

"I would encourage you to Google him."

JENNIFER ROSCOE
WCIA anchor

"I am on the committee to plan the steak and burger dinner for the Don Moyer Boys and Girls Club. Last year, we asked Deon Thomas to be the keynote speaker, knowing how much the adults and the kids in the room would love to hear his stories about his days as an Illini. He accepted the invitation and we were thrilled. I had no idea how thrilled I'd be.

"As emcee, I got to introduce number 25. He started to speak and stole the show. Not only did he talk about his days on the court, but the entire audience was riveted as he talked about growing up in Chicago and his time at the Boys and Girls Club. What was especially moving was how he connected with the kids. They could see themselves in him. It was really powerful and I am so grateful I was there.

"I know for a fact that we raised more money that night because of his emotional and inspiring words."

BARBARA WYSOCKI
Past president, Champaign County League of Women Voters

"My choice would be Sister Joel Read, my advisor when I attended Alverno College in the '60s. She not only taught history, but she was an advocate for educating women to take themselves seriously and take their rightful place in whatever vocation or field we felt inclined toward.

"Her life was an example of what she believed and expressed so well at every opportunity. She became president of Alverno and served for 35 years."

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