Cheryl Peck, recipient of the 2016 University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award

Cheryl Ford
Cheryl Peck, recipient of the 2016 University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award

A journey of unexpected change and fulfillment for Cheryl Peck

When Cheryl Peck ’86 LAS, MA ’89 LAS first walked into a classroom at UIS (then SSU), she was afraid to raise her hand.

When she retired from UIS in 2009, she had been the Director of Public Relations—spokesperson for the entire University’s—for almost 17 years.

“It’s easy to see that the University has been significant to me on many levels,” says Cheryl. “It was a life-changing journey.”

On October 26, 2016, Cheryl received the University of Illinois Alumni Distinguished Service Award, given to someone who understands the importance of education, demonstrates pride in her University, and whose extraordinary commitment, dedication and service have significantly advanced the University.

Cheryl has certainly met all these criteria. In her acceptance speech, however, she redirected the praise:

“While I am being recognized for advancing the university, it was really the University’s service, dedication and commitment to me that made this award possible.”

A brilliant professor can change a life

Coming out of high school, Cheryl planned a career as a physical education teacher, but she was unable to complete her college degree. Instead, (after a couple years of office work at a chicken hatchery!) she found a fulfilling career at the Decatur Herald & Review, where she worked for 21 years in sales and then as a writer.

Her lack of a degree haunted her, however. So when Cheryl heard about the new university in Springfield, she started taking classes, but without a clear of what she would study.

Everything suddenly clicked in place, however, on the day in 1982 when walked into Dr. Judy Everson’s “Literature Between the Wars.”

In the class, Judy Everson became “an engaging tour guide” through the novels of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Faulkner and others.

“Judy’s devotion to her students inspired us to reach beyond our fears as midlife learners and to ask more of ourselves than we had ever thought possible. The result was a new-found confidence that swept me on to further literary exploration and set me on a path of lifelong discovery in books and writing.”

Because of Judy, Cheryl became an English major. She describes the English program at SSU “as a wonderful little gem of a program.” Other faculty members also opened up news world for Cheryl: Dennis Camp, Mike Lennon, Norman Hinton and others.

As she was completing an English degree at SSU, however, Cheryl had continued working at the Herald & Review and after graduation had no plans to move elsewhere.

But then things changed again for Cheryl, again because of a University connection.

A personal contact can change a life

Soon after Cheryl completed her bachelor’s degree, UIS professor Mike Lennon called and asked if she would be interested in being a graduate assistant in the University’s Office of Public Affairs Communication.

“He was another English professor I admired,” Cheryl says, “so I quit my job of 21 years to work with Mike and finish my master’s degree in English.”

After so many years as a working student, Cheryl found it difficult to focus completely on her master’s degree: “Mike Lennon kept saying to me, ‘Just take time away. Don’t think about money. Don’t think about work. Just be free and focus on studying.”

Ten months into her program, however, Mike walked into Cheryl’s little grad assistant’s office. “I never thought I’d be saying this,” he said, “but there’s a job at the Board of Regents and I think you should apply.”

With Mike’s encouragement, in 1989 Cheryl became Assistant to the Chancellor at the Illinois Board of Regents, the then-governing board for SSU, Northern Illinois University, and Illinois State University.

This was her first experience working in higher education.

It was also where she met Dr. Naomi Lynn, who would play a huge role in Cheryl’s life.

An excellent role model can change a life

When Naomi Lynn accepted the position of SSU President, she offered Cheryl a job as Director of Public Relations at Sangamon State, a job Cheryl would hold for almost 17 years.

“Those were key years,” Cheryl says. “The University was young and growing and changing tremendously., and straddling the world of the reporters (which had been her world for 21 years) and the world of higher education was exciting. I was fortunate to be part of a developing university in the forefront of serving non-traditional students.”

As Director of Public Relations, Cheryl helped take the University through—

  • the transition from SSU to the University of Illinois,
  • the transition from a two-year upper-level undergraduate program to a full four-year program, and
  • other difficult PR challenges.

These tricky situations required Cheryl to be very clear in her explanations of the changes and the benefits of each transition and yet—even in troubling circumstances—to present the University in the best possible light.

“I am indebted to former Chancellor Naomi Lynn,” Cheryl says. “She was a magnificent leader whose warmth and magnetism brought the campus and the community closer together. I am especially grateful to her for teaching me grace under pressure and the value of humor.”

Cheryl’s further service to the University

After her professional service to UIS ended with her retirement in 2009, Cheryl continued contributing. First she joined the SAGE Society (Service, Action, Growth and Enrichment), which organizes the annual Lunch and Learn events and contributes in other ways. Cheryl did oral histories. Cheryl also joined the Friends of Brookens Library Board.

She stays involved first to give back, but even more to stay connected with people in a common effort to further the University.

UIS is a work in progress, she says, and engaged alumni help to move the university forward.

In 2010, Cheryl made a special and lasting contribution by endowing, through a bequest, the Judith E. Everson Professorship in English. The distinguished professorship will serve as a tribute to Professor Everson’s extraordinary gift for teaching that opened up new worlds of possibility and accomplishment for so many students.

“Being able to honor Judy in this way was the most gratifying moment in my life,” Cheryl says.

“The important role alumni can play…”

The following is quoted from Cheryl’s acceptance speech upon receiving the University of Illinois Distinguished Service Award:

Over the years, UIS has become a full-fledged four-year institution, has experienced enrollment growth, increased student housing, added a classroom building and the Recreation and Athletic Center and is now building a Student Union.

The University has also grown in reputation as the University of Illinois campus in the state capital, offering students a high quality education and opportunities to develop leadership skills and civic values. There will be plenty to celebrate when the campus turns 50 in 2020.

I am proud to have been part of it all and now understand the important role alumni can play, as mentors for students and as ambassadors in encouraging community engagement with the campus.