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NORMAL - Illinois State University alumnus Gregory Kunde credited his alma mater as a nurturing community that helped him grow into an internationally known opera tenor.

"Here I developed confidence," said the Kankakee native, who arrived in Normal in 1978 with plans to become a school choral director.

A tryout for a Chicago Lyrical Opera program his senior year opened the door to the world's most famous opera houses.

For Thursday's ISU visit, Kunde had left the island of Sardinia, where he's been performing at the Cagliari Opera House.

The keynote speaker for ISU's 149th Founders Day, Kunde received an honorary doctorate of arts before his speech.

He also treated the crowd to three operatic performances, which were greeted with a standing ovation led by ISU Board of Trustees Chairman Carl Kasten.

After singing, Kunde spoke about the original ISU graduating class. Though only nine students, the close-knit community they found helped them face the uncertainties of 19th century United States, he said.

"The founders understood the meaning of community," he said. They used brick and mortar, but also a unified philosophy of education and community, to create the state's first public university.

"Today's students are not much different" in some ways, he said.

Unsure of their future careers, family and civic involvement, they, like the founders and first ISU students, will be able to draw on the community and cohesiveness they found at ISU.

While an ISU student, Kunde was a member of ISU's madrigal singers, a group that he noted often performed in the ballroom where he was speaking Thursday.

At one point in his college years, the madrigal singers traveled to Vienna, Austria, where Kunde heard his first opera, "Salome." It moved him, and it led to his career.

"That a kid from Kankakee came to Illinois State and discovered a world beyond his imagination" reflects the ISU experience, said Al Bowman, the university's president.

"He exemplifies both the distinctiveness and excellence of our graduates."

Last year Kunde performed in Amsterdam, Sydney and the Canary Islands, as well as several U.S. cities. This year, he'll also take the stage in Paris and Switzerland.

He will finish 2006 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

"In my career, I've been proud to talk about my years at ISU," said Kunde.

Other Founders Day events included recognizing several students, faculty and staff with university awards, ringing the Old Main Bell on the quad, and a lecture on the Gamma Phi Circus by its former leader, retired professor Jerry Polacek.

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