The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, June 14, 2015

The Big 10 with Jeff D'Alessio, June 14, 2015

With an Illini-record nine baseball players drafted last week, we asked our panel of 10: Where were you when you got your life-changing news?


Urbana High grad, on being accepted to Harvard Law School

“I found out through an acceptance letter in the mail — a letter that ultimately would alter the direction of my life. As I like to receive and process potentially bad news on my own, I took the envelope into my house and made certain that I was completely alone before opening it. 

“When I finally did, I immediately called my parents to tell them the good news. While they were excited for me, they quickly reminded me of the costs of attending — approximately $175,000 for three years — and reminded me I would be solely responsible for paying for it. They then encouraged me to save the acceptance letter as a memento and apply to a more affordable law school. 

“Having no means of paying $175,000 on my own, I strongly considered taking that advice. But one of my mentors, Sonia Carringer, instead encouraged me to find a creative way of paying for it. That’s what led me to compete in the Miss America pageant that year, as I knew the scholarship money and speaking fees awarded to the winner would pay for the cost of attending Harvard. 

“While becoming Miss America was statistically more unlikely than being accepted to Harvard, due to God’s divine providence, I was crowned Miss America about nine months later and ultimately graduated from Harvard Law School debt-free.”


UI’s self-described “bug lady,” on winning the National Medal of Science

“On Feb. 2, 2014, as I sat in my office I found an email with the subject line ‘Presidential Award Consideration,’ which I thought was a phishing scam — it opened with ‘Hello (no name),’ told me I was being considered for an award ‘from the White House,’ instructed me not to tell anyone, and to reply with my full name, date and place of birth, signature and social security number for a ‘confidential search of FBI files.’ 

“On the remote chance that it was real, I complied and then immediately worried I’d end up the victim of identity theft or on a federal no-fly list. Nothing happened, either good or bad, for months. 

“On Oct. 1, as I was boarding a flight at the Sydney, Australia, airport to return home after attending the Australian Entomological Society, I received another email from the same ‘White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’ address, informing me that President Obama had selected me to receive the National Medal of Science. In capital letters, I was exhorted NOT to SHARE INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR SELECTION WITH ANYONE OUTSIDE OF YOUR IMMEDIATE FAMILY UNTIL THE WHITE HOUSE ISSUES ITS PRESS RELEASE. 

“That turned out not to be very difficult because no one in my immediate family was on the 15-hour plane ride to Los Angeles. I told Richard, my husband, in person, when I finally arrived in Champaign seven hours after that.”


Cerro Gordo principal, on landing the same job at St. Joseph-Ogden High, effective July 1

“I was outside in the parking lot supervising a passing period at work when Mr. (Brian) Brooks called. Truthfully, I accepted right then and there with no hesitation. (Wife) Katie and I had been having conversations through the entire process and knew this was the right move for not only me, but more important my family.

“It was a really cool moment when we told our two boys, Garrick (7) and Keegan (5). They started hooting and hollering around the house, chanting S-J-O, S-J-O.”


Champaign attorney, on being selected as the 6th Circuit’s newest judge last week

“I was in my car on the way home from the office. I received the call from Judge Michael Q. Jones, who started out by saying that the choice was very difficult and there were many highly qualified candidates, which made me think it was a ‘thanks for applying’ rejection call. And then he said ‘Congratulations.’ He kept talking but, for the life of me, I can’t remember what he said for a while after that because time seemed to stop and my head started buzzing. I’m sure I sounded like a complete idiot.  

“It was the biggest surprise of my life since finding out when my children were born whether each was a boy or a girl. I had been talking with him on a hands-free system but I pulled over, and after we finished talking, I got out of the car and let out a scream.  

“The first person I told was my wife and best friend, Colleen, who teared up and hugged me so hard I’m surprised she didn’t break one of my ribs.”


UI professor emeritus, on winning the 2006 National Book Award for fiction

“I had been a nominee before and the one-in-five odds aren’t great. But I went ahead and rented a tux and headed to New York and a fancy hotel in Times Square for the ceremony, perfectly resigned to a life of being always a bridesmaid.

“The finalists were all given medals that they were supposed to wear to the ceremony, in the event they were called to the stage. I had walked the several blocks from my own hotel to the one were the ceremony was to take place before I realized I had left my medal back at my hotel. So I ran back to my hotel, grabbed the medal and dashed back through the streets of Midtown in my tux, like a criminal on the run from the police. I got to the ceremony just as they were starting. When they called my name, I couldn’t take it in, but I was glad to be properly kitted out.”


1997 N-G Player of Year, on being taken in the sixth round of that year’s baseball draft

“I actually found out I was drafted by the Royals in high school while I was at Provena Hospital in Danville. We had a game in Rantoul on draft day and I managed to trip over the first baseman as I was trying to beat out my standard ground ball to the shortstop. I fell on my shoulder and needed to go to the emergency room for a sprained shoulder.

“I was preparing for X-rays when someone came in and told me the news. It was an awkward conversation with the Royals as I explained to them that the pitcher they just drafted an hour previously wouldn’t be able to throw for three weeks.”


UI grad, on being tabbed to fly space shuttles

“I had interviewed in the summer of 1994 — flying home from a cruise in the Persian Gulf — and it was now December. I was at work at about 0715 when my schedules officer called down to the ready room and said I had a call — from NASA.

“I ran down to my office and picked up the phone to find Dave Leestma, the head of flight crew operations directorate, on the line. He said, ‘Are you still interested in coming to NASA to fly shuttles?’ I said yes and we talked for a couple of minutes about when to report and I hung up. Then I let out a loud shout — Yes! Next thing I did was call my wife on her cell as she was driving our sons to school. She pulled over and screamed when I gave her the news.”


Danville High Hall of Famer, on winning the Pulitzer Prize for photography

“I was instructed to be in the Odessa American newsroom as we awaited the news. The publisher, Dave Lyons, lined a counter with champagne.

“Back in 1988, there were no cell phones or Internet. We relied on computers that would slowly trickle in the information one win at a time. After about an hour, the phone rang. The news editor answered and I heard her say ‘Why do you want to talk to him?’ They answered and she yelled ‘You won!’ It was UPI Radio wanting to interview me. 

“As I’m talking to them, I suddenly felt a cold wetness overcome me. The editor and chief photographer were pouring champagne on my head.”


North Ridge Middle School boss, on being promoted to Danville High principal

“Dr. (Alicia) Geddis, the new superintendent, was the person to inform me that I would be recommended to the board of education as the new principal. Before telling me, she detailed all the critical qualities that a person must have for this position. I listened to her intently as I desperately hoped she would tell me that I was chosen. 

“She came by my house to personally deliver the message. I had to contain my excitement when I heard the news outside of my home, so I would not wake my neighbors..”


Former University of Michigan professor, on being chosen as the UI’s 16th president

“It was the fall of 2004. After I interviewed with the presidential search committee, my wife, Mary, and I were invited to Chicago, where we met with the board of trustees in a social setting. It felt like an audition. We went back to our hotel and waited — and waited and waited.

“Finally, we got a call directing us to go to the Chicago Club on Michigan Avenue. We did and were sent up to a room on the second floor. There we found trustees, who congratulated me and welcomed us to the university. It was a big thrill. I had fallen for U of I hook, line and sinker during the interviewing process and really wanted the job. 

“My five-year presidency turned out to be quite an adventure with plenty of good, some bad and even a little ugly. Today, our feelings about Illinois remain unchanged: we love the university and the Champaign-Urbana community that has become our home.”