Dave Downey: In his own words

Dave Downey: In his own words

More than a half-century later, his 53-point classic — against Indiana, of all teams — is still the single-game school record. And Dave Downey — the high-scoring guard turned high-powered businessman — is still here. On the night he is to be honored with Parkland's V. Dale Cozad Entrepreneur of the Year Award, Downey shared with us the story of what brought him to Champaign and what has kept him here. Here he is, in his own words, as told to Editor JEFF D'ALESSIO:

Let's start at the beginning, 60 years ago.

There are decisions you make in life that are kind of accidental at the time that turn out to be pretty good in the long run. This was one of those.

When I was being recruited out of Canton High School, people thought it was going to be Kentucky. But I'd made the decision to come to Illinois with Bill Small and Bill Burwell. We figured if we had a guard, a forward and a big man, we would be decent — and we were.

My senior year at Illinois, I decided I wasn't going to try to play professionally. I think I could have, but we'll never know.

Back in those days, there were only eight teams in the league. A couple of coaches and general managers told me: You can probably stick in the league for a while, but you're not going to be great. You're the wrong size, and you're not super quick.

The truth is, I never had a burning desire to play professionally. And besides, back then, selling life insurance paid better than I would have been playing professional basketball.

* * *

Right after graduation in 1963, I married my wife, who was two years behind me and wanted to finish her degree here. So I started work at MassMutual Life Insurance, where I'd been an intern the summer of my junior year.

I went in thinking it would be just an interim thing. I'd decided I was going to be a United States senator after reading Allen Drury's 1959 political novel, "Advise and Consent."

On the first of August after we'd been married and after my wife was pregnant with (son) Jay, I decided that if I was going to be a senator, having a law degree would be pretty helpful.

Because I'd been recruited out of high school, I'd never had to apply to college. I was pretty naive back then.

I went to see the dean of the law school, who immediately asked me how I did on the LSAT.

I said: "What's that?"

This is where being an athlete — and someone who had a reputation for getting good grades — helped. He told me to come back in three days. When I did, he said he'd talked to the college's selection committee, and they'd agreed to admit me, but "you still have to take the LSAT for statistical purposes."

The next opportunity wasn't until October, after classes started. He said I could start classes and take it then. I did, and did fine, then passed the bar after graduating in 1966.

I was still working selling life insurance during law school, and I started to realize I wasn't really enamored with practicing law. I just thought it would help in my political career, the one I'm still waiting for. By that time, I would have had to take a cut in pay at MassMutual to practice law, so I stuck with selling life insurance.

* * *

I had a good mentor, which makes all the difference in the world. Frank Murphy had been a pole vaulter in the 1912 Olympics. He was a tough, little Irish Catholic from the South Side of Chicago.

We were part of a general agency from Peoria. He had an office in Champaign in what was called the Illinois Building, which is the executive center for Busey. He invited me to use it during the time I was in school.

Frank cared a lot about his clients and went about things the right way. He was doing sophisticated business in the early '60s, which really helped me.

There's not a lot of prestige in the sale of life insurance. It's not a position that most people grow up aspiring to, but it's worked out nicely for me. And I've never had a boss — from then until now.

* * *

Early on, this community seemed like it'd be a good place to raise my kids and try to make a difference.

After I graduated from Illinois, I played on a local AAU basketball team where I was the only white guy. We went on to win the AAU state championship, and these people became my friends. I'd had a black teammate, who was in my wedding.

I seemed to have an ability to bridge the gap — which was very large in this community back then — in the civil rights arena. And I was too naive to know that young businessmen aren't really supposed to do that.

It all turned out OK.

* * *

One of the things I'd gotten a chance to do both during my time as an undergrad and later, while working as a color analyst on Illini basketball games on TV, was give a fair number of talks to small schools around here — mostly athletic banquets and commencements. People wanted to have a chance to get to know me because of basketball.

It worked out nicely; I learned how to present myself; and it gave me a platform as I grew older.

I've traveled the world giving talks. You write. I talk. That was my platform.

Over the years, I seemed to develop a way of relating to audiences, which led to me being asked to speak at some national meetings. I would tell the story of how with a father who couldn't read or write and a mother who had a sixth-grade education in Kentucky, they'd taught me enough to get me through the University of Illinois and the law school and a start in business.

* * *

I've had some economic success and was able to move into a nice home on Champaign Country Club when I was 28. I'd made one big sale and saved the money, and when I got the chance, I bought a big house.

The company I worked for in Peoria had done a good job of helping the 19-year-old widow of one of my high school teammates who had one child and another on the way when her husband was killed. Her father was the business manager of an independent steel workers union in Peoria.

He asked me, when I was 25 or 26: "Do you know anything about pensions?"

"Oh yeah, I know a lot about that," I told him.

It turns out I didn't, but MassMutual was good at it. I made enough of a commission on that deal that I could put about a 40 percent down payment on a house on Armory Avenue.

I've lived there ever since.

* * *

Remember the Supreme Court justice who said he couldn't define pornography, but "I know it when I see it"?

That's what I'd say about Midwestern values.

It's hard to put into words, but there's been a certain credibility that seemed to transfer to me when I was asked to come to Washington, D.C., to explain why there should be legislation that helps people who buy life insurance and give other talks.

My experience has been that Midwesterners are viewed as fair and plain-spoken, and that's helped me develop credibility with potential clients along the way.

* * *

When (Parkland President) Tom Ramage came to see me about this award they wanted me to accept, I said: "I'm not an entrepreneur."

I think of myself as a professional salesman. I had thought of an entrepreneur as a Shahid Khan.

He said, "Well, the people who nominated you — including Dale's son (Greg) — believe you are an entrepreneur." Some people convinced me that "yes, you do meet the definition, just in a different way." I was kind of the catalyst that put together what is now First Busey, which is a major player in this community.

I finally decided that if it would help Parkland, it would be something I'd participate in.

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