Avid fan that he was, John Norkus followed the Illini to the 1984 Rose Bowl in Pasadena and the 1989 Final Four in Seattle — and on the university’s dime, no less.
“As an undergrad, I was a cheerleader and in grad school I took the job of the cheerleading coach,” Norkus says, “so there was good fortune in the timing to be one of a limited few to play an official role in both the 1984 Rose Bowl — after cheering on the only team to ever beat the entire Big Ten — and 1989 Final Four, with the Flyin’ Illini.”
Now the managing director of Chicago’s North Highland Worldwide Consulting, Norkus earned his bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1985, then returned to campus to finish up his MBA in 1989 after two years of designing military aircraft.
“Attempting to narrow down Illinois to a single favorite place is tough,” he says. “A better response might be that there is a consistent way that Illinois places made you feel — there’s always an anticipated excitement that comes from possibilities that exist around every corner.”
A few such snapshots:
1. The Boneyard. “Every spring, walking into Transportation Building Room 103, where all the aero engineering courses were held, was a simultaneous challenge to both brain and sinuses. Not only would the class get introduced to theories of flight, but also the Boneyard Creek, sitting right below the windows, had just started to ferment so that ‘aroma’ would seep into our room.
“Since the South Farms were a rose garden in comparison to the Boneyard, the question was inevitably raised: should we open the windows and risk passing out from fumes or keep the windows closed and sweat through our clothes?”
2. Kam’s. On any night approaching the so-called home of the drinking Illini, “what was going to happen? Who knew? There was a strong possibility someone would walk out of their untied hi-tops because they stuck to the floor.
“We might welcome the Champaign police while they did their own version of ‘taking a lap’ around the bar. Whether the evening included dancing in the basement, or ‘mashing’ in Theta’s foyer, there was nothing better to complete the evening than a 3 a.m. pizza from Garcia’s or Pizza World or Papa Del’s, or cheese fries from Doc J’s.”
3. Chief Illiniwek at Memorial Stadium and the Assembly Hall. “There is no greater college tradition that demonstrates pride and honor — in the best way we knew how — for the indigenous leaders that inspired this, our university.”
4. The Armory. “Even the most seemingly mundane places proved to produce the best memories.
“Buried within the cavernous echo chamber that is the Armory, with its grimy green-rubber track full of sweaty students burning off their own freshmen 15, is one of those musty, windowless classrooms with a persistent flickering fluorescent light.
"And while it’s great to get a front row seat to all that championship football and basketball, strung between endless parties and raft of friends — and a couple of degrees from a world-class institution — it was at this unassuming room where I came face-to-face with my greatest thrill of all.
“And Robin and I are well into our third decade of living happily ever after.”