The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, May 19, 2019

The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, May 19, 2019

We're up to 1,675 alumni tales at our 'UI at 150 Years & Beyond' website (uofi150.news-gazette.com), with fresh content added daily. Here's a new batch of 10 grads sharing memories about the people and places on campus and around Campustown that they won't soon forget.

JAMES HOLZHAUER
With $1,691,008 million in winnings, UI math major turned Las Vegas pro gambler goes for 'Jeopardy!' win No. 23 on Monday (4:30 p.m., WAND-TV)

"When I think of my time at U of I, the first thing that comes to mind is Papa Del's.

"My poker-playing friends and I had a standing arrangement that if one of us made a big score in a tournament, he'd buy everyone a three-course dinner of garlic cheese bread, thin-crust pizza and deep dish pizza.

"Las Vegas has a fabulous restaurant scene, but nothing can match the smell of bubbling mozzarella from that old location on Green Street."

CHERYL THOMPSON
Award-winning NPR investigative reporter, News-Gazette alum

"I had a couple of favorite professors — along with one or two I could have taken a pass on — but Bob Reid was my mentor, sometime savior and later, my friend.

"Professor Reid was one of my graduate school professors. He was tough, but fair.

"I remember getting an A-minus on a 25-page paper. Bob scratched it out ever so lightly so that I could still see the grade, and changed it to a B-plus because I had a comma in the wrong place. I was so upset with him because I worked hard on that paper.

"Now, as a journalist and a professor, I totally get why he did it, and I thank him for it. Being accurate is key in journalism. It was a valuable lesson he taught me; one that I clearly remember all these years later.

"Every award I've won, from my shared Pulitzer to my Emmy and others, I owe to his nurturing and guidance."

JEFFREY LIEBER
'Lost' co-creator, 'NCIS: New Orleans' showrunner

"Tom Mitchell was one of my acting teachers during the time I was part of the undergraduate conservatory program at Krannert. I was a pretty intense, serious student. Overly intense, I think.

"I wanted desperately to be 'done,' to be anointed the next Lawrence Olivier. So it was my freshman year, I was 19 and I played the part of the lawyer, Barnette Lloyd, in Beth Henley's 'Crimes of the Heart.'

"He was a nervous character, and I decided that the way to express that nervousness was to play with my tie. I grabbed it and gestured with it and used it a little like a security blanket. It got lots of laughs.

"After the performance, I sat with Tom, and he saw past all the laughter and told me it was not my best work. I was shocked — everyone seemed to love it — but he cut to the chase: It was basically a (BS) choice. It came from nothing real or primal, but just my desire to draw attention to myself.

"I insisted he tell me what I could've done to get better. He just smiled and said, 'You have to live a little; you have to grow up.'

"He was the first person to look me in the eye and tell me that there was a process that didn't have a short cut. I had to do my time like everyone else. I'm 50 now. I'm still doing my time."

HEATHER (FOLEY) HILTZIK
Former Illini gymnast, digital content/PR manager at David Leadbetter Golf

"Tom Costello was my professor for a couple classes, and he made a greater impact on my time and my career than he would ever know.

"He taught me how to become more confident in my own abilities — public speaking specifically — while teaching me valuable life lessons along the way.

"He was so kind to welcome me into his home, many times, as a confidant and mentor, offering life and career advice.

"Ever since, I think about his teachings often in the workplace. He is the true definition of someone who doesn't work because they have to, but works because they want to."

BRANDON JONES
U.S. Army brigade judge advocate, based in Germany

"If I'm being honest, I shouldn't have been in law school. I'd decided that's what I needed to do to make money because I had family members who would come to depend on me.

"I had a rough go of it while I was at the U of I. I struggled both emotionally and academically and wasn't sure the law was for me. It would not be a stretch to say that without the influence of Dean Virginia Vermillion and Dr. Karla Fischer, I would not be where I am today.

"Dr. Fischer inspired me to work with survivors of domestic violence. Much of my early career was defined by this work. I was able to assist numerous clients, and while working with Dr. Fischer, I learned the value of service in the law.

"While mentoring me through school, it was Dean Vermillion's influence that convinced me to seek a career in the JAG Corps, where I currently work. Serving in the Army has been one of the greatest honors of my life, and it all started with the women I met at the U of I."

CHELSEA NORTON
Director of marketing/communications, Champaign Park District

"I spent a lot of time in WPGU's fishbowl studio on Green Street. Being a part of the WPGU family was truly life-changing and led me to where I am today.

"I was already passionate about different types of music, but WPGU was an outlet to express that and curate my own show to have a safe space on campus to be myself.

"I often worked late-night DJ shifts, and the view of Green Street from that window was so entertaining. I once had a person request 'Purple Rain' — an eight-minute song — by holding a note up to the window sometime around 3 a.m. It wasn't necessarily the format at that time, but you can bet I played it and that he stood outside happily dancing and singing throughout the entire tune."

XUMING HE
Statistics professor, University of Michigan

"I was a graduate student from 1985-89, and on the faculty there from 1993-2011, so UIUC is always home in my heart.

"The place I remember best is Espresso Royale — a laid-back coffee house with warm hospitality. I met with mentors, colleagues and students there almost every weekday morning, discussing problems in statistics and data science, big or small. We did calculations on napkins, tried to prove mathematical theorems on the back of envelopes and debated about the future of our profession in multiple dimensions.

"The baristas knew us so well, they didn't even have to ask us for our orders.

"I do not have the exact statistics, but estimate that I have been there for well over 3,000 days."

MARC WILLIAMS
Principal product manager, Walmart Labs

"I was studying at the main library one time around 5 p.m. and came across Doug Altenberger, who was a basketball star when I was at the U of I.

"There was a game that evening against Big Ten rival Wisconsin, and I was just leaving to go get some pizza at Pap's and then watch the game on TV. Doug was buried in his book.

"I said, 'Doug, what are you doing here? You've got a big game to get ready for.' He said he had important work to finish now, and he assured me he'd be ready to play.

"As much as athletes get a bad name for not really being good students, here was our star, one of the best ever, truly living up to the student part of student-athlete. That inspired me to be the best student I could be."

BOB GIBSON
Associate judge, DuPage County

"I have terrific memories of Mabel's, on Green Street, a two-story, intimate live music venue and bar. I liked everything about the place, especially the different genres of music featured there.

"Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows was a favorite, particularly 'Three Hundred Pounds of Heavenly Joy.' One rock band that could bring down the house was a bunch of teenagers named The Vertebrats.

"On any given night, acts as diverse as Duke Tomato and the All Star Frogs, The New Era Reggae Band or even Adrian Belew might show up and play. Many remarkable raw-energy shows and without breaking the bank."

NORAH PIEHL
Executive director, Boston Book Festival

"When I arrived as a first-year graduate student, it was with the intent of pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature. But I quickly discovered upon teaching first-year rhetoric that perhaps teaching wasn't my calling, after all.

"It's probably telling that my fondest memories of that time were discussing the most recent episodes of the brand-new show 'South Park' with my students.

"I started to pursue other possible career directions, and stumbled across an opportunity at the University of Illinois Press for a graduate student in English to pursue an internship in the copy editing department.

"There, I discovered challenging work that I was also good at, and thanks to the high standards and mentorship of amazing professionals like Theresa Sears, Ann Lowry and Willis Regier, I thrived there, accepted a full-time job at UIP after finishing my master's and wound up devoting my career to books."

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