Alumni Association leaders share their proudest moments
Jim Vermette: Peerless Leader
It was the late 1960s and early ’70s, and Jim Vermette, ’60 LAS, recalls the “great change” in America driven by such issues as Vietnam and civil rights. Vermette, executive director of the University of Illinois Alumni Association from 1967 to 1983, found it “a very enriching time because there was great emphasis on the search for truth, and that’s what the University is all about.” His—and the UIAA’s—responses to the social and political upheaval ranged from sponsoring a political debate series in Chicago to sending the Medicare 7, 8 or 9 Dixieland jazz band on tour to alumni clubs around the country.
Full disclosure: Vermette’s wife, Dena, sang with the Medi-care group, a connection emblematic of his strong yet personal approach to leadership. The couple enjoyed hosting Homecoming parties at their house, drawing such luminaries as University President David Henry and Illinois Governor Richard Ogilvie. “They were in our little utility room having a drink,” Vermette says. “Leaning on our clothes washer. An animated discussion! All for the welfare of the University.”
Vermette’s own vision for the UIAA led to the development of a strategic plan, updated annually. Its success helped the UIAA grow into the largest dues-paying alumni organization in the country, and in 1981 it was named the nation’s top alumni association by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.
Among the programs Vermette remembers most fondly are the week-long summer camps UIAA hosted at Allerton Park for alumni and their families, which included swimming, faculty presentations and barbecues.
Life at the UIAA was not without glitches, of course, including a hilarious episode in the early digitization of alumni records. In the second computer-driven mailing of Illinois Alumni News, one alumnus received 2,500 copies. Understandably, the U.S. Postal Service complained. “We goofed,” Vermette says, smiling. The list for the next mailing improbably expanded the ranks of non-UIAA member addresses from 60,000 to 90,000. “Looking at the list,” he recalls, “we see, ‘Lulu, stable #3, cell #1.’ ‘Daisy, cell #6, stable #2.’ [The program] had mixed up the Illinois Dairy Association cows with our alumni!”
“I always used to say that no ‘udder’ university can make this statement,” Vermette says. “But it happened.”
Lou Liay: Sales Force
Although he retired as executive director of the University of Illinois Alumni Association in 1998, the indefatigable Lou Liay, EDM ’62, HON ’23, still leads the UIAA’s programs for senior Illini, continuing his decades-long project—which he describes only half-jokingly—to meet every single living Illini (now exceeding 500,000). “I’m a salesman, and my product is the alumni of the University of Illinois,” he says. “I basically want every alumnus to be happy with their time at Illinois and to rekindle all the memories.”
Joining the UIAA staff in 1966 and assuming leadership in 1983, Liay was there for the association’s glory days of expansion and outreach, which began with the administration of his predecessor, Jim Vermette, ’60 LAS.
A guiding force behind the Explorers travel program, Liay helped alumni venture all over the world—and sometimes went with them. “When we started in the late ’60s, we had charter flights out of Chicago to Athens, Rome, Paris, London,” he recalls. “The whole plane was alumni. It was $398 for the week—for airfare and the time in the country! That’s where the travel program really took off. It was just amazing.
“Travel was a great way to connect with alumni,” Liay says.
Liay remembers a small-ship cruise around the Indonesian archipelago as “an incredible cultural experience. We saw a burial … on an island, and we were [only] the second American group to go there. For the first one, they [had] sacrificed a goat. And the alumni were so offended that when we [got there] they just pretended to sacrifice a goat,” he laughs. “We would run around with Komodo dragons, and [the guides] had their guns and sticks ready in case [the lizards] got feisty. They’re big!”
Another of Liay’s favorite UIAA memories is from 1984, when he shepherded a group of some 4,500 alumni and supporters to the Rose Bowl to see Illinois take on UCLA. Upon checking into the hotel, he and his wife, Mary, learned that they had been assigned the presidential suite. “The Reagans [President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy] were moving out. And we moved in. We had a huge party with our alumni and staff later. And everybody went in and took their picture on the Reagan bed.”
Loren Taylor: Deal-Doer
Unprecedented prosperity and tempestuous times alike fell within the 18-year tenure of Loren R. Taylor. Serving as president and CEO of the University of Illinois Alumni Association from 1998 to 2016, Taylor negotiated an affinity credit card agreement in 2003 valued at more than $20 million in benefits to the association and the University. The UIAA moved from its crowded Illini Union digs in 2006, settling into the impressive new Alice Campbell Alumni Center, “a 25-year dream,” Taylor says. “The beauty of it reflects how the University feels about its alumni, and how alumni feel about their University.”
But the big wave of progress and success was interrupted by the financial crisis of 2008. The ensuing recession brought about enormous financial reverses worldwide, including deep cuts to funding for higher education in Illinois. The downturn impelled Taylor and the UIAA to take on a new endeavor—provide a home for Illinois Connection, the political advocacy program that enlists alumni to work with state legislators in each district, to build support for the University.
Originally founded in 1993 by the UIAA, Illinois Connection had been housed in the University President’s office for many years. But Taylor eventually convinced President James Stukel that the Alumni Association could turn the program into “an army of voices,” and he got it back. Under the UIAA, Illinois Connection grew into a political network of thousands of students, alumni and supporters who communicated on the University’s behalf with legislators in Springfield.
A different kind of crisis roiled the University in 2009—the revelation of a secret “clout” admissions list that privileged applicants who had influential supporters. The ensuing scandal led to the resignation of top administrators and most members of the University’s Board of Trustees. For decades, the Alumni Association had been recommending potential Trustees to the Illinois governor’s office, and in this case, the UIAA did that on a greater scale than ever before.
“We were successful in convincing [Governor Pat Quinn] that the alumni association was best positioned to make [these] recommendations, [since] our only agenda was the best interest of the University,” Taylor recalls. Ultimately, five of the UIAA’s nominees were appointed. “What a difference our organization was able to make in the life of the University at a time of need,” Taylor concludes. “That was a signature achievement.”
Jennifer Dillavou: Role Model
For Jennifer Dillavou, ’82 ED, becoming the first woman to permanently lead the University of Illinois Alumni Association was a dream come true—one with deep professional and personal roots. The Champaign native attracted a lot of attention during her 40-year career, also serving as leader of the alumni associations at Carnegie Mellon and Ohio University. At Ohio in particular, “I realized what a dearth of female leadership there was,” she said. “Younger women … were looking at me to see how they should be behaving.
“It really became important to me that I become the first woman [to lead the UIAA].”
There was plenty to do when Dillavou arrived at her new office in the Alice Campbell Alumni Center in 2017. Funding, staff and membership had all shrunk in the long wake of the 2008 recession. She initiated major restructuring through a new business model, and began to staff up and spearhead programs and services, including a major expansion of the UIAA’s online presence.
One huge success initiated during her tenure is IlliniLink, a networking platform—which Dillavou nicknamed “LinkedIn on steroids”—for mentorship among members of the greater University community. “We have nearly 10,000 alumni, students, faculty and staff who have registered,” she said.
In the real world, Dillavou focused on engaging with alumni stakeholders and increasing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Alumni Association. While meeting with Black alumni in preparation for a reunion last fall, “I realized that their experience was not my experience,” Dillavou observed. “I was this townie who pledged to the Alpha Gamma house, and I just had a great time. I didn’t know what it was like for Black alumni to hear footsteps behind them at night and to be frightened.
“We are on our way to becoming a much more diverse organization. But we have a way to go,” she said. “I’m really hoping for some big strides not just with our Black alumni but with our Jewish, Latinx and LGBTQ alumni.”
“It’s such an honor and privilege to hold this position,” Dillavou concluded. “There’s not a day that I’m not proud to be back home, to be back at Illinois and to have the position that I have.”