2017 Alumni Award recipient, Colleen Callahan Burns, ’73 ACES
It’s hard for Colleen Callahan Burns, ’73 ACES, to remember a time when she wasn’t connected to the University of Illinois.
Growing up on her family’s farm near Milford, Ill., Burns became an Illini fan during the 1960s, attending basketball games with her father, Fran Callahan. From her first days as an undergraduate in the fall of 1969 to the present, she has been entwined with her Alma Mater through the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, its Alumni Association, the University Alumni Association and the Fighting Illini Pork Club, an organization founded by her father.
“It’s like I never left the campus,” she jokes.
Fighting Illini Pork Club
After graduating in 1973 with a degree in agricultural communications, Burns became the first woman agribusiness director for WMBD Radio and TV in Peoria, a position she held for three decades. That same year, she also signed on as a leader of the Fighting Illini Pork Club, which promoted the state’s pork business and raised funds for athletics and animal sciences at the University. Members ranged from farmers to corporate executives.
The club ran such annual events as Salute to Agriculture Day, a tailgate and barbecue held each year on a home football-game Saturday. (The event is now sponsored by ACES and the UI Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, as well as the state agriculture department and Illinois commodity associations.)
When the Pork Club ceased operations in 2015, it had raised more than $500,000 for initiatives in athletic and animal sciences.
Burns has been influential in other ways for ACES. She served on the board of the College’s Alumni Association for more than a decade, advancing such efforts such as the annual Alumni Awards program and the ACES Alumni Association Endowment Fund.
Her most lasting ACES legacy may be her work on the Agricultural Communications Leadership Council, which provides scholarship and mentorship opportunities to students. The council’s efforts also have included support for a journalism concentration in agricultural communications, offered in cooperation with the UI College of Media, and a $2 million campaign to establish the James F. Evans Endowed Chair in Agricultural Communications in 2013.
“These efforts help us sustain the University’s place in agricultural communications,” Burns says.
Her own career in agricultural communications led from her first and long-held media post in Peoria to the position of director of rural development in Illinois for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which she assumed in 2009. In 2012, the USDA tapped her to lead national recovery efforts from that year’s devastating drought.
In addition to her work with ACES at the University, Burns is a member of the UI Foundation President’s Council and the Illinois Connection advocacy network. She has also served on the UI Alumni Association Board of Directors.
“Given how much this University has helped me throughout my life, I’ve always been eager to do what I can when I can for the University of Illinois,” Burns says.
An outstanding advocate
Former UI president Robert Easter, PHD ’76 ACES, whose relationship with Burns dates back to the 1970s when Easter was a graduate student in animal sciences, says Burns “has carried the U of I flag proudly” and “never forgotten her roots.”
Others echo Easter’s praise and celebrate Burns’ commitment to Illinois.
As a high school student, Kimberly Meenen, ’87 ACES, ADM ’08, was inspired to study agricultural communications at Illinois following a chance encounter with Burns at a county fair. Now ACES senior director of development, Meenen says, “Colleen is and has always been an outstanding advocate for this University and for the College of ACES.”
For Burns, supporting UI has never been a question of if, but rather, how. The University, she says, launched her adult life. She met her husband, Richard Burns, ’73 ACES, in a speech class at Illinois. And her academic work there laid the foundation for her groundbreaking career.
“My father always used to say that you come into this world with nothing and leave with nothing, and that it’s the in between that matters. This is my in between,” Burns says of her devotion to her Alma Mater. “And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”