Obama on UI award: 'What an extraordinary honor this is'

Obama on UI award: 'What an extraordinary honor this is'

URBANA — Former President Barack Obama said that the late Sen. Paul Douglas served as a "North Star" to him, an example of what a public servant should be.

In a 30-minute ceremony Friday afternoon at the University of Illinois President's House, the 44th president of the United States accepted the Paul H. Douglas Award for Ethics in Government, conferred by the Institute of Government & Public Affairs.

Obama arrived at the Florida Avenue mansion at 1:30 p.m., shortly after having addressed about 1,300 people in Foellinger Auditorium on the Quad for more than an hour.

"This is especially meaningful because when I was considering a life of public service, I was not interested initially in running for public office," Obama told the approximately 50 dignitaries gathered in the living room for the momentous occasion.

The actual medallion was handed to him by senior UI Trustee James Montgomery, a neighbor of the Obamas in Chicago. Obama joked that Montgomery keeps an "impeccable lawn."

Others involved in the conferral who made brief remarks were UI Presdient Tim Killeen; Jean Taft Douglas Bandler, the daughter of the late senator from Illinois; and current U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, who interned for Douglas while a senior at Georgetown University and was elected to the seat Douglas once held.

Durbin said his former boss was known for his ethics.

Seriously wounded during World War II, which Douglas entered at the age of 50, he qualified for a $250-a-month veterans benefit. But Durbin said Douglas did not think it right to accept that pay as he drew his annual senator's salary of $15,000. Douglas tried in vain, Durbin said, to return his pay to the quartermaster. Government bureaucracy being what it was, the check came back to him.

Douglas then used that money to set up a fund to help other veterans, Durbin said.

Durbin said his boss also refused to accept any gift with a value of more than $2.50.

"He was very, very serious" about that, Durbin added.

"He never wanted a statue," said Durbin, adding he believed that Douglas would approve of the award established in his name in 1992.

Drawing parallels between Douglas and Obama, Durbin said Obama finished eight years in office "without a whiff of scandal, without a whiff of indictment. That's saying something."

Two of a kind

Following Durbin, the 85-year-old Bandler made other comparisons between her father and Obama.

"Both were born with big ears and raised by mothers of valor and conscience," she said, drawing laughs from the audience.

"Barack Obama is a shining exemplar of public civility ... an advocate for the marginalized ... who truly serves the public for the greater good," Bandler said.

Killeen followed Bandler in welcoming Obama to the UI President's House, saying that his wife, Roberta Johnson Killeen, and their son, Cormac — who played the piano for guests before Obama arrived — joked that it "was about time this house had a real president."

Killeen noted that Friday's visit by Obama marked the first time that a current or former U.S. president had graced the UI President's House.

Taking the podium, Obama began his remarks, which lasted about 3 1/2 minutes, by thanking his friend Durbin and saying "what an extraordinary honor this is."

Then, without skipping a beat, he looked at his medallion and said: "He does have big ears," prompting Bandler, who was in the front row to Obama's right, to say, "Would I lie?"

"No, you did not," Obama replied.

'Extraordinarily meaningful'

Although he never lived in Champaign-Urbana, Obama said he spent many hours downstate while in office as a state legislator, while campaigning for the U.S. Senate, and while playing "wingman for Dick Durbin."

"It's obviously wonderful to be home," he said.

The former president said when he was first considering public service, "I was interested in working at the grassroots level in communities. I was skeptical it was possible to engage in a life of politics without in some ways compromising yourself."

"But there were a couple of examples out there that gave me some hope. One of them was Paul Douglas," he said. "The more I learned about his service to our country, his valor, his willingness to stand up for what is right even when it wasn't easy — especially when it wasn't easy — and his clear understanding that you go into public service not for self-aggrandizement, not to simply boost your ego, certainly not to enrich yourself; you do it to serve.

"He provided a North Star for me in the same way he provided it for Paul Simon, in the same way he provided it for Dick Durbin. So to have come full circle, having completed my work as an elected official, and to receive this award is extraordinarily meaningful."

'More work to do'

The 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner then wise-cracked about Durbin's earlier compliment about his presidency being untainted.

"I was whispering to President Killeen that having gotten through the presidency without a scandal seems like a low bar," Obama said, drawing laughter from the dignitaries. "Michelle and I have talked about this. I do feel we emerged on the other side intact. People who worked with us did it for the right reasons.

"We made mistakes, but we never doubted we had populated the White House ... with people who were there for the right reasons and had America's best interest in mind."

Obama then thanked Killeen and the others at the helm of the UI system for making the university a great example of a sound investment of tax dollars.

"The UI system has continued to carry the torch, and for that we are extremely grateful. We have more work to do," he said.

'Incredible inspiration'

Among other guests at the medal ceremony were the chancellors of all three UI campuses: Robert Jones for Urbana-Champaign, Susan Koch for Springfield and Michael Amiridis for Chicago; Urbana-Champaign campus Provost Andreas Cangellaris; former UI President Bob Easter; Executive Vice President Barbara Wilson; Lester McKeever, treasurer of the UI board of trustees; and trustees Montgomery, Don Edwards and Stuart King.

There were also about a dozen members of the Douglas and Bandler families, some of whom help select the honoree.

Benjamin Douglas Jacobs, great-grandson of the late senator, said this was the first time he has attended the ceremony, which is normally held in Washington, D.C., in the spring.

A recent college graduate living in Golden, Colo., Jacobs couldn't help but be a bit star-struck as he sat within a foot of the former president.

"I work in the state public defender's system. To see someone who has conducted himself with such honesty and transparency, who shows you he could work in public life honorably, is an incredible inspiration to me," Jacobs said, emphasizing he was speaking only for himself.