'Find your why': Gies returns for 'Signing Day' at UI college that bears his name

'Find your why': Gies returns for 'Signing Day' at UI college that bears his name

CHAMPAIGN — Businessman and philanthropist Larry Gies loves to come back to the University of Illinois to meet with students, and Thursday was no exception.

He took the stage as sophomores lined up to announce their major in the Gies College of Business, named for the man presiding over the annual "Signing Day" ceremony.

Gies — announced this week as the 2019 commencement speaker — took the time to chat with each student briefly, asking them why they chose their major and where they were from, and what they see as their mission in life.

"My message is very simple, and that is: Life is a series of experiences, and the goal is to continue to experience and stretch yourself, to find new ways, new opportunities, meet new people and experiences," Gies said later. "I think a lot of times, students feel that, 'I'm making a decision for my life right here,' and it's not. ... That's just one experience they have today. They're not choosing what they have to do 30 years from now."

Gies, who in 2017 donated $150 million to the college that now carries his name, credits faculty mentors and students he met at the UI, including his wife, Beth, for making him "the person I am today."

Case in point: When he was graduating with his business degree, Gies went to see the undergraduate dean, Emerson Cammack, because he hadn't received a letter saying he'd been selected for Bronze Tablet honors, reserved for the top 3 percent of the college's graduating class.

He walked in and saw the look on Cammack's face and knew something was wrong. He sat down and Cammack showed him the list of honorees, with a line across the bottom. Just below it was Gies' name.

"I was the cutoff," he said. "And I said, 'Dean, the good news is you don't have my right grade-point average.'"

But Gies had forgotten about a summer-school class in which he'd earned a B, which factored in to his GPA.

"He could tell I was extremely upset because I had just missed Bronze Tablet. And he looked at me and said, 'Let this be the fire that drives you for the rest of your life.'

"That's one of those things that's always made me work a little harder," he said. 'I started focusing on, 'OK, what can I do.'"

Gies, now head of Madison Industries, went on to an enormously successful business career but never forgot the impact the UI had on his life.

"It changed my life for so many reasons," he said.

Tuition was relatively inexpensive then — $963 a semester — making it possible for him to afford college. He met his wife at the UI, a teacher who impressed on him the importance of education to "level the playing field for people."

"We're on a mission to democratize education, because not only do you change that child's life, but you can actually change the trajectory of a family for generations," he said.

Gies started working with students soon after graduating. A friend was in law school, teaching a business and technical writing class, and asked Gies to teach students how to write a resume.

Later, another professor asked him to come talk to his class. Walking out together afterward, he gave Gies a C-minus for his efforts. Gies was despondent, but a week later, the professor called and said he'd changed his grade to an A-plus.

"He said, 'The students loved you. Can you come back?'" he said. "So ever since then, I've come back."

Gies said he learns as much from students as they learn from him.

"They challenge me. And each year, as the world changes, they change. And so they're helping me to change along with the world," he said. "I've grown so much as a person."

How are today's students different from his generation?

"They're much more mission-based. It used to be about getting a job and making money. They're very much about the mission and the purpose," he said. "That's what I believe, and it's a nice connection point. They're idealistic, but they don't know the path. And if I can help them with that path, then I've done a good job."

It's a theme he plans to address in his commencement speech, saying the key is to "find your why."

"'Why' is what connects the dots between what you do each and every day and a higher purpose," he said. "Because we all want to be purposeful in our life. And if you have more experiences, you're more likely to find your why."

He said he loves the supportive nature and "great Midwestern ethics" at the university, where "everyone helps each other. It's not, 'Hey, it's all about me,'" he said.

He said his 2017 gift was motivated by the experiences he had on campus, and by meeting Dean Jeffrey Brown and Professor Robert Metzger and hearing their vision for the college as a place where students can find their purpose.

He said he initially didn't want his name to be on the college and "didn't want to be known."

"Beth and I had agreed we wanted to do this for the university and our state and the community," he said. "The stronger the university is, the stronger the state is. It lifts everyone."