By Guy Stephens
ROCKFORD – Many of Rockford’s movers and shakers crowded into the Coronado Performing Arts Center to see eight Illinoisans – including two from the Forest City – receive the state’s top honor, the Order of Lincoln. Mayor Tom McNamara was among those who said it was a big deal.
Some out-of-town guests also were in attendance, including former laureate Ryne Sandberg, Illinois Senate President John Cullerton and (judging by the number of people who wanted to take her picture) the audience’s biggest celebrity, Loyola’s Sister Jean.
After settling into their seats to the sounds of the former movie palace’s Grande Barton Organ, the audience was called to order by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling. Then came a procession of Lincoln Academy Laureates and officials onto the stage, accompanied by the Rockford Symphony Orchestra playing a brand new piece, “Shall Long Endure,” composed for the occasion by musical director Steven Larsen.
Following the invocation, Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem, Lincoln Academy Chancellor Stephanie Pace Marshall welcomed the crowd and set the stage for the ceremony.
The RSO and choir performed “Illinois” the official state song. Then it was down to business. Each new laureate was introduced and decorated by Academy President and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner before giving a short speech.
Rockford native Emily Bear began by acknowledging her age – the musical prodigy is the youngest laureate in the Academy’s 54-year history – then gave a rejoinder courtesy of (who else?) Lincoln.
“Being held to the standard of Lincoln is about as hard as it gets for a 16-year-old,” she said, “but I can definitely connect with this quote by Mr. Lincoln: ‘It is not the years in your life that count; it is the life in your years.’”
Bear spoke of the universal nature of music and how its possibilities had shaped her career and the lives of others.
She and the other honorees spoke not so much of their accomplishments but of the others in their lives – family, friends and teachers – whom they said really were responsible for their presence on the stage. And, like Bear, they each cited Lincoln’s actions, words and character as inspiration.
The other honorees were: Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Dick Butkus, YouTube founder Steven Shih Chen, scholar, author and educator The Rev. Michael J. Garanzini, S.J., Ariel Investments President and After School Matters Chair Mellody Hobson, National agribusiness leader Edward L. McMillan, world-renowned diabetes authority Dr. Louis Philipson, Bergstrom Inc. Chairman and Rockford native David Rydell.
It became clear as the night proceeded that all shared another trait – a willingness to use their talents and good fortune to give back to others. Gov. Rauner, reflecting on his fourth convocation, noted that willingness and called the laureates “the best of the best.”
“Being up on the platform with these ladies and gentlemen, you feel very, very humble, I’ll say that. Very humble,” he said. “Tonight is very personal to me. Every one of our honorees has had a major impact on me or my family.”
After his words, the RSO, choir and audience joined in a rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Chancellor Marshall reminded everyone of the importance of what they had witnessed.
“We need these stories,” she said, “and those of our former laureates, to show us what we look like when we put ‘we’ before ‘me’ and ‘us’ before ‘them,’ and when we embrace the unfinished work of our time, and literally call our ‘better angels’ to walk beside us.”
With that, the Convocation was ended, but the night wasn’t over.
A patriotic concert followed in honor of the late Thomas Johnson, another Rockford native and former chancellor of the Academy. It started with familiar pieces by Morton Gould, John Williams and John Philip Sousa. The finale was the world premiere of a piece by – and featuring – new laureate Emily Bear, called “And Forever Free,” thus ending the Lincoln Academy of Illinois event as it began and often was during the evening, with a uniquely “Rockford” flavor.
The Lincoln Academy was established in 1964 to identify and honor exceptional Illinoisans whose contributions have brought honor to the state and have advanced the betterment of humanity. Laureates receive the Order of Lincoln at a convocation ceremony held each spring.