At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, brilliant minds conceived the idea of having an annual recognition ceremony for outstanding Illinosians. This year, the ceremony heads to northern Illinois, as its members celebrate some of the top minds in the state.
Started as an idea at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the Lincoln Academy’s annual recognition ceremony for outstanding Illinoisans takes place in Rockford this spring.
The Lincoln Academy of Illinois is a nonprofit organization based in Springfield, with a mission to recognize Illinois citizens who’ve made outstanding contributions to their local, state, national and global communities. Each spring since 1964, at a public convocation held in revolving locations throughout Illinois, these recipients are inducted as Laureates into the Academy and awarded the Order of Lincoln, the highest honor given by the state.
This May, the ceremony returns to Rockford for the first time since 1970. Held in the Coronado Performing Arts Center, it constitutes an Illinois Bicentennial event, since this is also the 200th birthday of our state. The Lincoln Academy is a member of the Bicentennial Commission and an official partner with the City of Rockford and the Friends of the Coronado for this event.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling, a Regent of the Academy, is co-chair of the Rockford Civic Committee with his wife, Myrna. They’re assisted by vice co-chairs Beth and Ed Howard. According to Borling, the ceremony consists of the convocation and a concert, both free and open to the public. A gala reception will follow, reserved for sponsors and paying guests.
The convocation will begin at 5:30 p.m. with a formal Academy processional featuring a world premier composition by Rockford Symphony Orchestra (RSO) Music Director Steve Larsen, performed by the RSO and chorus, including participation by Rockford University. Gov. Bruce Rauner, Academy Chancellor Dr. Stephanie Pace Marshall and Lincoln Academy trustees will then formally present the recipients with the Order of Lincoln. They join a cohort of 340 men and women so honored since 1964.
After a brief interval, the RSO will perform a patriotic memorial concert in memory of the late Tom Johnson, a prominent Rockford attorney and former Chancellor of the Academy, who was an expert on the life and times of Abraham Lincoln. He authored a series of articles about Lincoln in the Rockford Register Star in the 1990s, and composed the text on plaques at the Lincoln Square in downtown Rockford and Veterans’ Memorial Circle at North Main and Auburn streets.
Emily Bear, an outstanding pianist, composer and songwriter who, at 16, will be the youngest Lincoln Laureate ever, will perform an original piano and orchestral composition she created for the event, a world premiere. This will bring to a close the public portion of the evening.
“Following the concert, the Governor’s gala reception will be held for those whose financial support has made the event possible,” says Borling. “Besides special food and drink, there will be wine tasting tables (courtesy of Tony Artale) and a spectacular cordial and dessert extravaganza on stage for sponsors and other paying guests.”
To sign up for the free convocation and concert, go to laoil2018.eventbrite.com. A full house is expected. Paid invitations, which include reserved seating for the convocation, concert and gala (black tie suggested), are available now at the Lincoln Academy website for $175 per person. Sponsorships are also available at the site. Click on “Join Our Community.”
Dr. Stephanie Pace Marshall is the 10th chancellor of the Lincoln Academy and the first woman to hold that position. She is a world-renowned educator, lecturer and author from Chicago, and is the founding President and President Emerita of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), the nation’s first three-year public residential institution for high school students academically talented in STEM curriculum. Marshall became a Lincoln Laureate herself in 2005, was appointed a Regent in 2012, and elected vice-chancellor in 2014.
According to Marshall, the Lincoln Academy idea got its start at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, when the State gave a party at the Illinois pavilion on Illinois Day, Aug. 26, for some of its most celebrated citizens. The guest list included Abraham Lincoln’s great-grandson, UN Ambassador Adlai Stephenson, musicians Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway, and actress Mercedes McCambridge. The event was hosted by then-governor Otto Kerner.
“The gathering made an impression on Michael Butler, the head of the Illinois organization for economic development,” recalls Marshall. “A spark was lit. He encouraged Gov. Kerner to continue the notion of honoring Illinois citizens who had made contributions both in their chosen fields and in service or philanthropy for the betterment of humanity in the spirit of Lincoln, whom we claim as our native son.”
Each year since, with the active support of the sitting governor, the Lincoln Academy has nominated and selected prominent Illinoisans, either by birth or residence, as possible Laureates.
“We seek outstanding citizens in 10 areas, although we don’t always have recipients in all 10,” says Marshall.
The categories are business, industry and communication; education; government and law; medicine and science; religion; social service; sports; arts and performing arts; agriculture; and labor.
Of the 60 trustees appointed by the governor, 19 are elected as regents to constitute the governing board of the Academy. Laureates are selected by the trustees. The annual convocation is held in various locations throughout the state.
“Given the high honor, we take Laureate selection most seriously,” says Marshall.
In 1975, the Academy took on another mission. To complement the selection of Lincoln Laureates of today, it now also honors college Student Laureates, “young people of exceptional promise,” at an autumn ceremony held at the Old State Capitol in Springfield. The Governor and Chancellor preside, with the full Academy in attendance.
“Every president of each of 57 public and private four-year degree-granting institutions in Illinois is deemed an Academic Trustee of the Lincoln Academy,” Marshall says. “The students, all seniors, are vetted and selected by the presidents of the colleges and universities.”
Planning discussions at the Lincoln Academy have included possible ways Student Laureates could better connect with each other and with Lincoln Laureates in the future.
Marshall suggests that such connections could facilitate the continued development of projects and initiatives started on campuses, as well as some Lincoln Laureates serving as mentors to students, or hiring them as interns on particular projects.
“Such connections could have an enormous impact, not only on the careers of Student Laureates, but on the State of Illinois,” says Marshall.
For more information about this event, go to thelincolnacademyofillinois.org and click on “Join Our Community.” Contact Executive Director Julie Kellner at [email protected] or the Borlings at [email protected].
“We are all successful because of those who have come before us and on whose shoulders we stand,” Marshall says. “These people recognize that profoundly, and are all, in their own way, modeling and embodying the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. They have all done astounding things, but it’s this elusive spirit of Lincoln which distinguishes them.” ❚