Illini Legends, Lists and Lore: Jan. 20, 2019

Illini Legends, Lists and Lore: Jan. 20, 2019

As a 14-year-old freshman at Tinley Park High School, future University of Illinois star Rob Mango was focused on two things: running and visiting the Art Institute of Chicago. Following weekend track meets, his parents would shuttle him to 111 S. Michigan Avenue, where he attended classes and devoured the paintings of Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso.

Mango credits his mother for creating his passion for literature and fine arts.

"Every morning my mother prodded me in the direction of literature and the American poets and authors who she was most familiar with," he said.

Once Mango arrived at the University of Illinois on a partial track scholarship, the middle-distance ace trained with long-distance teammates Lee LaBadie, Mike Durkin and a young Craig Virgin. He endured extreme pain when, during the 6-to-12 mile runs, they would ratchet up the pace.

"To survive the experience," Mango said, "I would visualize my paintings, usually works in progress, but also new pictorial hallucinations as my mind would fill with fragments from my subconscious.

"My life was a composition of training and distance running and studying art and creating," he continued. "I found out what oxygen debt meant; when you're not breathing in enough air to supply to your muscles for the speed that you're running. Something happens to your brain. You're looking straight ahead and your mind is gushing forward ideas and images. You're seeing them in your eye. I was seeing rectangles with pieces moving. Different forms of symmetry started entering my mind ... bilateral, radial, rotational symmetry ... really just the contents of the human psyche, which we all have. But I was able to excavate them and use them as a motif format to create paintings."

Running long distances turned out to be a highly successful for Mango, as he would finish his career with two Big Ten individual championships (880-yard run in 1972 & '73) and one conference relay title (1-mile relay in 1970).

At the NCAA meet in 1972, Mango anchored the 2-mile team of Dave Kaemerer, Ron Phillips and LaBadie that captured first place. Individually, Mango also finished second in the 1973 NCAA 880-yard run.

He was a 1972 Olympic Trials finalist and won the 1973 Big Ten Conference Medal of Honor for proficiency in the classroom and in athletics.

Mango continued to study painting after graduating in 1973, first at the University of New Mexico, then back at Illinois where he received his Master of Fine Arts for sculpture. Then, Mango said, New York began calling his name.

"It was the home of the beatnik poets and it was the city where the art world was and the people I admired," he said. "Painting became the essence of my being."

Since November 1977, Mango has operated his own gallery and studio in Tribeca in Lower Manhattan. For more than 40 years, he has been an internationally exhibited painter and sculptor. Mango's work has been extensively collected in both the private and corporate spheres and featured in such publications as The New York Times, Art in America and Art News. He's also written a book entitled "100 Paintings: An Artist's Life in New York City."

Mango's family includes his wife, Helena, and two children. Today, he celebrates his 68th birthday. To view his work, go to

Illini Birthdays:

Today: Nick Anderson, basketball (51)

Monday: Joe Tanner, swimming (69)

Tuesday: Quinn Snarskis, baseball (22)

Wednesday: Rick Howat, basketball (70)

Thursday: Mikaela Lucki, track & field (20)

Friday: Mark Dressen, baseball (49)

Saturday: AJ Bush Jr., football (23)

By Mike Pearson, author of Illini Legends, Lists & Lore (Third Edition now available in stores). Get more Illini birthdays, trivia and historical tidbits daily on Twitter@B1GLLL. His website is