Gies: Find your 'why,' Illini

Gies: Find your 'why,' Illini

CHAMPAIGN — Paula Hays and Julie Griffin were all smiles Saturday as they watched their only children graduate from the University of Illinois after hearing the advice of a small-town boy turned multi-millionaire man.

Larry Gies (below), keynote speaker for the 148th commencement exercises held in Memorial Stadium, urged Hays's and Griffin's sons and some 13,000 others in the Class of 2019 to find their "why" in the work they choose, instead of focusing on the what or where.

"Your impact in life will be measured by how you change the world and those you touch along the way," said the Mendota native. "So don't ask yourself, 'How much money will that job pay?' But do ask yourself, 'How can I connect the dots to a higher purpose, not just for me but for all those around me?'"

The message was pleasing to Hays and Griffin. The Champaign women have been friends almost two decades since the day Spencer Hays and Alex Griffin, now 22, walked into Holy Cross School in Champaign to start kindergarten together.

"That's awesome," Griffin said of the message delivered by Gies, who made his fortune in fewer than three decades after his 1988 graduation from the UI with a bachelor's degree in accountancy. "He was definitely inspiring."

His 27-minute speech was delivered on an overcast, crisp spring morning. The 52-degree temperatures felt colder thanks to a breeze and the metal bleachers that conducted cold through the back sides of the family and friends of the largest graduating class ever. Approximately 4,750 were at Memorial Stadium; another 8,000 participated in individual college graduations all weekend.

Gies and his wife Beth, also a UI grad, have given a $150 million chunk of their wealth to the UI business college that now bears his name because education, he said, is part of his why.

"Nobody should ever have to say, 'I want to be an Illini but I can't afford it,'" he said.

It was Beth's invitation to him to help tutor at the YWCA on campus while they were in school, that sparked their passion to educate, he said. After leaving the UI, he continued tutoring some "amazing" children in a rough area on Chicago's west side.

"David was bright, energetic and we had a blast together," Gies said of one of his mentees.

But when David, 10, was slain on a city street, Gies said he vowed "to find a way out for these bright and promising young kids. A way out of the blight, the poverty, the years of neglect and the hopelessness."

He made good on that promise by building The Chicago Jesuit Academy, a school for about 200 boys in third through eighth grades, taught by "30 passionate teachers, four of whom are Illini."

It's been operating 14 years and Gies said about 90 percent of its graduates are in college or have a job, in contrast to the 3 percent from the area who earn college degrees and the 37 percent who are employed.

For Gies, the other part of his why wasn't exactly an epiphany. Rather, he had a nagging sense of not feeling fulfilled by his work even while being successful at it.

Just six years ago, he asked his management team to engage in an introspective exercise in writing their own eulogies.

"When they spoke specifically about how they wanted to be remembered for their professional lives, nobody mentioned making a lot of money for our investors. What they did talk about was building a company that would outlast us; something future generations would be proud of," he said.

Former chancellor Michael T Aiken received an honorary degree at Saturday's commencement.

That led to the formation of Madison Industries, a company that switched from buying other companies, improving them and selling them at a profit, to creating products and services that make the world "safer, healthier and more productive" and "would be here 100 years from now."

"Don't expect to have the answers today. Remember, it's a journey and by all means, enjoy it. But do keep that burning passion you have today. Embrace it, feed it, develop it. Make what you do meaningful to you by finding your why," he said.

Hays said she and her husband Curtis, talked about that on the ride home with their son.

"We told him the why may not come right away, that at the beginning the why may be just to pay the bills, but that his why will come and we know he will do great things," she said.

Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden received an honorary degree at Saturday's commencement.

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