As thousands of NIU alumni return to campus this weekend for Homecoming, it is unlikely any will bring and voice the positive messages of two-time alum Willie J. Kimmons.
Young people! Study hard! Stay in school! Say no to drugs! Say no to sex! Say no to strangers! Aim high! Think big! You can be anything you want to be! Occupy all the space you can!
So said Kimmons, who possesses the booming voice of a preacher and the imposing frame of a 6-foot-7-inch basketball star, when he visited his alma mater late last month.
His audience, many of whom were students, soaked it all in with rapt attention.
“Learn everything you can while you’re here, and learn it well,” Kimmons said. “I see in this room rocket scientists. I see teachers. I see principals of schools. I see oceanographers. I see mathematicians. I even see the cure for AIDS. I see the president of the United States.”
Kimmons returned to his alma mater Sept. 27 as the inaugural speaker in the College of Education’s Community Learning Series. In partnership with the NIU Alumni Association, the series will bring in College of Education alumni who are leaders and scholars in their fields.
His topic, “The Importance of a Quality Education: Life and Career Choices for Young Adults,” drew extensively from his own rich history.
As the oldest of 27 step-siblings from Hernando, Miss. – 16 girls and 11 boys make up the combined offspring of Kimmons’ biological mother and father – he came to NIU in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University in health education and psychology.
“It was 41 years ago,” Kimmons said. “It seems like yesterday.”
Mentored by faculty members Francis Stroup and Hubie Dunn, he became part of a “nurturing family” of graduate students who were told again and again to “never, ever forget from whence we came and to reach back and help those less-fortunate. It anchored us. It gave us a foundation. It planted a seed.”
Stroup, who is 101, and Dunn, had front row seats for Kimmons’ speech. He brought them to their feet once for applause and often grabbed their hands and raised them in the air, much like the referee at a boxing match.
“Dr. Stroup, Dr. Dunn, they invested in me. That’s why I’m standing here today!” Kimmons said. “Establish precious relationships. You can’t imagine what that meant to me. And never, ever underestimate the ability of your classmates. Everything in life is predicated on relationships.”
Kimmons worked hard at NIU, balancing his studies with jobs coaching various NIU teams and working summers as a lifeguard at the local swimming pool. He even brought a few of his siblings to enroll here, putting them up in his apartment and mentoring their studies.
After completing his master’s degree in curriculum and instruction and his doctoral degree in educational administration, he went on to serve with distinction at every level in the education system.
Over the last 37 years, he has been a K-12 classroom teacher, a college professor, a program director, a dean, a president and a chancellor. Now he is an educational consultant, author and motivational speaker who is considered a leading authority on issues in higher education, leadership, parental involvement and health care.
Such a life is possible for every NIU student, he said, giving them words to live by.
Work. Think. Enjoy. Read. Worship. Love. Be loved. Dream. Laugh. Plan.
He also asked students to join him in reciting his “Student’s Pledge for School Success,” which included this promise: “I will face new tasks and experiences with a positive attitude. I will not be discouraged by failures or mistakes because I know that these are really only opportunities for me to learn and improve.”
More advice came from his “Hidden Rules of Life.”
“Plan A: Try not to ever put yourself in a position where you have to rely on another human being. Plan B: Always create or make alternative plans or options in life,” he said. “Plan C: There is no price tag on experience and exposure, so get all the experience and exposure you can get in life. Plan D: Never, ever compromise your principles.”
NIU College of Education students already are two paces ahead in the race, he said.
Kimmons assigned part of that credit to new Dean LaVonne Neal, who joined the college over the summer, calling her a “visionary leader, a pioneer, a risk-taker and a change agent.”
The rest of the credit lies in the students themselves.
“You are brave. You are the best and the brightest,” he said. “Don’t let anyone ever tell you you’re not special.”