During his 1970-71 senior year at Thornridge High School in suburban Dolton, Ill., Allan Vest played on a now-legendary basketball team crowned as state champions in the first of its back-to-back titles.
Membership in a club like that offers bragging rights that last a lifetime – and, sure enough, Vest still loves to remind his five kids about their dad’s long-ago hardwood heroics.
Yet the self-described “shy, 18-year-old freshman” truly found his place at NIU a handful of months after that final victory downstate.
NIU is where Vest came to study Mathematics Education, a major he changed to Physical Education and Industrial Arts after a difficult class in calculus opened his eyes. It’s where he met his wife, Carol, who came to NIU from the family farm in Momence to study Special Education.
It’s where, on a predawn morning in 1974, Al brought Carol to the East Lagoon to feed the ducks and geese at sunrise – with an engagement ring carefully placed inside the bag of O-Ke-Doke popcorn. “I was so happy that she didn’t throw that into the lagoon,” Vest says.
They graduated May 10, 1975, and were married exactly one week later on May 17, 1975.
For the next year, the newlywed College of Education alums taught in Elmhurst in their respective fields until a reduction-in-force claimed their jobs.
Vest remembered something he’d heard about DeKalb: “ ‘If you ever put your feet in the Kishwaukee River, you might leave DeKalb, but you always come back,’ ” he says. “Well, we’d had our feet in the Kishwaukee.”
And so back to DeKalb they came – and here in DeKalb they’ve stayed. Vest now is retiring from NIU after 44 years as a full-time employee who served under seven university presidents and nearly 50 years as a proud Huskie.
“It’s been a long and wonderful journey,” says Vest, whose last day is June 30. “Basically, NIU has been a second family to me, my wife and my five children. It’s part of who we are. It’s been beautiful.”
He spent most of his career on campus as director of the Program for the Hearing Impaired (PHI), a one-year transitional program for high school graduates who were deaf or hard-of-hearing and the only of its kind in the United States.
Vest applied for $2 million in grant funding during each of his 29 years in the top job. State dollars also underwrote the program, which assisted participants in determining their readiness for college or vocational school or, in some cases, in completing high school credits.
Students spent their time in PHI undergoing “a full battery of evaluations” to assess their academic, vocational and social capabilities.
The majority proved they were able to enroll in two- or four-year colleges, he says, and entered the program’s college prep track. Some went on to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. or the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., and some stayed at NIU.
Others entered the vocational track to seek employment in the trades.
“It was about, ‘Where are you now, where can we get you and where are you going to go?’ ” says Vest, who earned a master’s degree in Deafness Rehabilitation Counseling when he returned to NIU in 1976 to work in the program.
He found that career during his undergraduate employment as a resident assistant in the residence halls.
During the pre-semester staff meeting in August, Vest was told that half of the residents on his floor were NIU students and half were deaf and hard-of-hearing.
“I just fell in love with it. I moved from the being the RA to being the residence hall adviser,” says Vest, who became fluent in American Sign Language and taught graduate courses for five semesters in the Department of Communicative Disorders.
“NIU was wonderful to all of these students during the time they were here. NIU provided visual fire alarms and visual doorbells. Many of these students were employed at different places – food service, child care. NIU was very welcoming to our students.”
When the PHI program ended in 2008, Vest moved to the University-School Partnerships office for two years before taking his current role as clinical placement coordinator in his alma mater Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education: “I feel like I’ve come full circle,” he says.
Since 2008, he has worked with the department’s external partners to secure experiential learning opportunities that include student-teaching assignments for Physical Education majors and internships for Kinesiology and Athletic Training majors.
As retirement beckons, Vest is grateful for his “second family” and 50 years of “ups and downs.”
“That’s said very fondly. I would not change anything about it,” he says. “NIU has been very good to me and my family. The relationships. The support. The opportunities. The careers. The ups I will cherish for life; the downs I learned from, and moved on. And there were 100 times more ups than downs. That just speaks volumes for NIU.”
He and Carol hope to relive their honeymoon, when they spent six weeks and traveled 12,000 miles to camp “out west” in national parks and forests, and to indulge in hiking, biking and gardening.
Retirement also will provide more time to spend with their four grandchildren.
And to his five children – Alyssa, Jacob, Bradley, Colleen and Bryan, all of whom presently live in Illinois and have spent the last few years bugging their dad about when he might finally retire – will go printed versions of this story to break the news.
But none of this means that Vest truly is ready to call it a day in Anderson Hall.
“I would work another seven or eight or nine years if I could. There’s not one day that I haven’t enjoyed waking up in the morning and coming to work,” he says.
“I will miss the camaraderie of my second family and the students. We’re the fun bunch here, and I mean that in a positive way. We all work well together,” he adds. “I hope that all of them and their loved ones are healthy and staying safe and Huskie strong.”