BLOOMINGTON -- Prior to giving the keynote speech at Sunday’s 22nd annual Minority Academic Achievement Recognition Ceremony at the Shirk Center at Illinois Wesleyan University, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White was hoping nobody would notice that it was also his birthday.
But organizers of the event were not going to let something so significant pass lightly. Before White’s speech, event emcee Shirley Boykin stopped the program and asked the 1,200 members of the audience to rise and sing a chorus of “Happy Birthday” to White, who turned 79.
“I’m so old, I’m just glad to be somewhere,” White said. “But today is about the kids being recognized here, because they are our future. This is an exceptional program and the futures of these great young people being recognized are brighter because of it.”
More than 1,200 students were recognized as part of the 22nd annual program by the Neighbor-to-Neighbor Educational Activity Club. The program recognizes Bloomington-Normal’s minority youth in fifth grade through high school who have achieved honor roll status.
Barbara Malone’s ‘vision’
The program was started by Barbara Malone in 1991 after she noticed a lack of diversity in students making the honor roll, said Yvonne Jones, a volunteer with Neighbor-to-Neighbor.
“Barb had a vision, and this program started with about 40 to 50 people, and now we are honoring 1,200 students,” she said.
IWU President Richard Wilson said he is proud that the university plays a big part in the awards ceremony.
“This event is one of the more important events in the life of the university,” he said. “As you might imagine, I give great attention to any activity that recognizes academic achievement.”
In his keynote speech, White said he found levels of success after being challenged by others who said he could never accomplish the goals he set. A school teacher for 33 years, White recalled how he went to college, founded the Jesse White Tumbling Team, played professional baseball, served in the Illinois General Assembly and then as Cook County recorder of deeds, and eventually, secretary of state, now in his 14th year.
“Every time someone told me I couldn’t do it for one reason or another, I simply said, ‘Watch me,’” he said. “That’s what these people have to do from this point forward. Accept challenges head on.”
Tumbling team, too
Following the presentation of awards, White’s tumbling team performed acrobatic routines, one of about 1,500 shows the team will perform around the country this year.