Growing up in East Chicago Heights, Jerry D. Blakemore clearly recognized the importance of education and public service.
His father, J.D., who worked in the Youngstown Sheet and Tube steel mill for 31 years, held a seat on the village board and volunteered as a police officer and firefighter. His mother, Mattie, an operator for Illinois Bell, led his school’s PTA while she encouraged her three sons to read and study hard.
Blakemore, a first-generation college student who combined those passions toward a prestigious career in law and government, has been named vice president and general counsel at NIU.
Pending formal approval of the appointment by the NIU Board of Trustees at its Thursday, March 24, meeting, Blakemore will begin work April 1. He replaces Kenneth L. Davidson, who retired in December.
“Jerry Blakemore will be a tremendous asset to NIU. He is able to ‘hit the ground running’ and brings to his position an extensive expertise and knowledge about Illinois law, public policy and regulatory affairs,” NIU President John G. Peters said. “He is one of the most well-known and highly respected higher education attorneys in Illinois and the United States. NIU is fortunate to have attracted a senior executive of Mr. Blakemore’s reputation.”
“We’re excited to have him join our team. He brings broad experience in higher education in Illinois, and has already been tested in providing counsel to an independent governing board,” added Marc Strauss, chair of the NIU Board of Trustees. “This position is important to the Board of Trustees because the general counsel provides vital input into the workings of the board and supports the consideration of issues crucial to the development of NIU.”
Blakemore, vice president and general counsel at Southern Illinois University since 2005, is already setting an ambitious agenda that will continue to boost NIU’s presence in the region, state, nation and world.
“I’m not solely interested in how University Legal Services can turn out more contracts in a timely and technology-driven manner. What excited me about coming to NIU was joining such an experienced leadership team. It is clear that my previous experience in public policy, regulatory and legislative affairs and risk management will add value to NIU, further enhancing the critical role the university plays in the Chicago metropolitan region,” Blakemore said.
“Really, I want to help NIU continue to serve students by providing a quality education and making a difference in the lives of our students and the generations of students to come.”
Blakemore brings impressive qualifications to that mission.
Born in 1954, the same year as the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision that desegregated public schools, Blakemore was only 30 when he became deputy governor and legal counsel to former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson. He remains the youngest person, and the first African-American, to assume that post.
Appointed to chair the Illinois Board of Higher Education in 1992, he served as a member of the IBHE board for 12 years. He also served previously as assistant secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs in the U.S. Department of Labor.
He headed the Regulatory and Governmental Affairs Practice Group and ran the Chicago office for the Atlanta-based Sales, Goodloe, Golden & Blakemore law firm, where he was a managing partner.
Prior to joining SIU, the lifelong Chicago White Sox fan worked as CEO and general counsel of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, the municipal corporation that built and still maintains and operates U.S. Cellular Field.
He is a board member of the National Association of College and University Attorneys and a member and past chairman of the Midwest Higher Education Compact. His resume also includes regulatory work with the Illinois Commerce Commission and private-sector experience as general counsel to a St. Louis manufacturing company and with the Chicago-based law firm of Carney & Brothers.
Education, Blakemore said, made it all possible.
“To my parents, it was beyond important. It was a necessity,” he said. “There was no other consideration.”
After Blakemore earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Princeton University in 1976, he returned home to Chicago to study law at the John Marshall Law School.
Like Blakemore himself, that decision has its roots in 1954.
Brown v. Board of Education paved the road to educational equality and opportunity for him and his brothers: Sgt. James T. Blakemore is retired from an honorable career in the U.S. Marines. Jerome L. Blakemore is director of the Division of Social Work at the University of Memphis.
Thurgood Marshall’s winning argument to the Supreme Court on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – and his eventual appointment as a Supreme Court justice 13 years later – made it even more monumental.
“As a kid, my heroes were people like Thurgood Marshall and John Kennedy, people in public service. It seemed to me that people who made a difference were people with a background in the law, using the law to do good things for citizens,” he said. “I still think that the law can do these things, providing protections and help for people.”
His firm conviction in those possibilities found strong reinforcement in 2009.
It was the year he was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court and the year Sonia Sotomayor was appointed as its first Latina justice: Blakemore and Sotomayor were classmates at Princeton.
At NIU, Blakemore will strive to strengthen the university’s mission of providing access to an affordable and accredited higher education – especially to those first-generation students who are in the same shoes once worn by Blakemore and NIU President Peters.
Peters’ fervent emphasis on not only access and affordability but student success also helped to lure Blakemore from Carbondale to DeKalb.
Blakemore said he believes NIU will continue to grow and withstand the state’s financial difficulties through innovative strategies, through adapting to modern times that include distance education and online universities and through telling the university’s story of lives transformed.
“NIU is a collegial community committed to quality education. There wasn’t anybody I talked to who didn’t emphasize the importance of that mission. I heard it from the chair of the Board of Trustees. I heard it from other board members. I heard it from President Peters and senior administrators, of course,” he said.
“There are so many people who’ve succeeded who tell the same story I’ve told, and that Dr. Peters has told: when you come from a place like Ford Heights, when you come from a family with no higher education, and you become a university vice president and general counsel – or a university president. We are firsthand examples of the transformational nature of higher education,” he added. “We’re highlighting why public education is so important, and we must continue to be actively involved in that process.”