CHAMPAIGN - University of Illinois alumnus and philanthropist Larry Gies will serve as the campus-wide commencement speaker on Saturday, May 11 at Memorial Stadium.
Gies, a Mendota native, is the founder and CEO of Madison Industries, an international manufacturing company that is one of the largest privately held companies in the world. The Chicago-based company is dedicated to making the world “safer, healthier and more productive.”
“We’re extremely proud to have Larry Gies serving as our 2019 commencement speaker,” commented Chancellor Robert Jones. “His story is an example of how an Illinois education can make a difference, and I know it will inspire our students to make their own impact on the world.”
Gies, who holds a bachelor’s degree in accountancy from Illinois, has returned to give a guest lecture in the business college in each of the past 25 years. He and his wife, Beth, made history in 2017 by giving $150 million, the largest gift in Illinois history, to the leading business school now known as the Gies College of Business. Gies says he gave the gift because he is on a mission to democratize education.
“Expanding access to a great education levels the playing field,” he said. “Education changes the life of a student, as well as the trajectory of the family for generations.”
Gies said he never considered another college. “Before I attended Illinois, I had never been on a plane, and I had maybe been to three or four states,” he said. “The university made the entire world more accessible. It changed my life.”
He said the people he met on campus shaped his life. “The students, the administrators and the professors were so supportive,” he said. “It was truly a family atmosphere. Everyone was so humble, but also passionate about what they wanted to accomplish. My classmates remain great friends 30 years later, and I sit in an office with six Illini today.”
But his single most important connection on campus was with Beth, also an Illinois alumna. They spent countless hours chatting on the Quad, studying, taking afternoon runs or just hanging out on campus. “If not for her, I would not have the ability to affect positive change in the world that I do today.”
During his address, Gies plans to encourage each graduating student to “find your why.”
“It’s about being able to connect the dots from what you are doing each and every day to a higher purpose,” he said. “We all want to find a purpose in life and be passionate about it.”
Gies said solving for their “why” is what inspired Beth and him to invest $150 million in the University of Illinois. The Gies College of Business has used the gift to greatly increase student scholarships, invest in faculty recruiting and expand online initiatives.
“Regardless of income, class or culture, education levels the playing field and creates opportunities for everyone to have a meaningful and purposeful life,” Gies said. “Investing in the students and faculty of the University of Illinois greatly improves the lives of all of our state’s residents.
“But I am just one small cog in the wheel; the students will define what this will mean for future generations by what they do for the world and those they touch along the way.”
Though he has given many presentations, Gies said the commencement address feels the most daunting.
“The opportunity to speak at graduation is an honor,” he said. “But it’s not about me. This is such a big day for the students. My hope is that I can give them something meaningful to take with them in the future – a message that will resonate and stick with them for many years. If I can do that, I will have accomplished my mission.”