"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Sons of the Pioneers theme for TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon artist's musings melding metaphors and journalism, for readers in more than 150 countries.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Booth is a Verb, Epilogue

"Can you write about a dead person?" asked a student in The Clark's feature writing class in January, 2009.

"No." The Clark rolled his eyes. The assignment was a profile, and the question came from an older student, with baseball cap on backwards, tattoos stretched over his arms. "How can you interview them?" he sarcastically asked.

Then, for some reason, The Clark also asked, "Who?"

"Bob Illidge."

The Clark is rarely without words, but this was one of them.

Finally, he asked "Why?"

"He's the reason I'm back in school and an advertising major," said the student.

Then The Clark warned him it would be very hard for The Clark to grade, and that he'd be extra hard on the grading. The student didn't blink, but smiled, accepting the challenge. "It's been almost four years since he died, and I'd like to do it."

Then The Clark starting spouting off stories and people to contact and some of the story of The Booth, much to the delight of the rest of the class, thankful to have him off on a tangent.

The student, completed the story, and it was printed that spring in The Vista.

Here it is:

By Justin Neely
“There was just something there that was special,” Elizabeth Illidge recalls. “People just liked him.”
            Robert J. Illidge, former UCO advertising professor, had an impact on individuals that continues today four years after his death. For those who knew him, thoughts of this gravelly voiced, grey haired man with a beard to match, make people smile and jump at the opportunity to talk about him.
            “He would bring life to the teachings he would deliver,” said Steven Schwartz, UCO alum and advertising major. Other returning advertising majors say that Illidge was the reason they chose advertising as a major and career.
            A breach of contract as the chairperson of Journalism at Wichita State led Illidge to UCO in 1992 at age 61.  His wife, Elizabeth, believed her husband’s age would make it difficult for him to find a job and was a factor during the hiring process at UCO.
            Dr. Terry Clark, professor and chairman of the Journalism Department of UCO, saw otherwise. “Bob had the experience that we valued,” Clark said. “His advertising and teaching experience were who we needed, not just a Ph.D.”
            This new position would require Illidge to drive 300 miles every week while his home and his wife of 39 years, better known to him as his “bride” or “sweet pea,” stayed in Wichita.            
            As a teacher, Illidge had a reputation for being strict and unforgiving, based on his three decades of advertising experience. Those who only heard of him, somehow feared him. As for the students he taught, many will tell you he played a strong role in why they’re in advertising today.
            “He really wanted students to succeed and learn,” said Elizabeth Illidge.
            At the beginning of every semester, Illidge would make one rule clear. Come to class and do not come late. As a result, if a student was late then they were also absent.              Illidge had little tolerance for lazy students who didn’t work and even less tolerance for those who were late. Schwartz remembers Illidge talking about a time when he was late for a presentation and was fired. Illidge knew the real world would not accept such behaviors.
            Schwartz became well aware of his seriousness. After being late one too many times to class, he was asked to leave and received an F for the semester. Schwartz apologized and retook Illidge the following semester.
            Today, Schwartz is the Director of Operations for Visual Image Advertising in Oklahoma City. He appreciates Illidge not only for his wisdom but also for his unique mannerisms, engaging personality and “little life lessons”.           
            When people speak of Illidge, one word comes up every time. Humor.           
            Jill Kelsey, professor and department intern coordinator, remembers Illidge using his dry sense of humor, excellent storytelling, and off the wall expressions to uplift and make anybody laugh.
            “He put his unique stamp on everything,” Kelsey said. For Illidge, it wasn’t just about unexpected life changes; it was about the “vicissitudes and vagaries of life” as he put it.
            “He was exactly who he was…life was fun for him,” said Terry Clark.
            Illidge’s humor was just a small part of who he was. For some, the impact he had on others came from his endearing personality, the respect he gave others, and the fact he never took himself too seriously. For others, it was his sense of perspective, honesty, and intelligence. However, for most it was all of the above and much more.
            Some of UCO journalism professors’ favorite memories of Illidge took place at the “the booth.” The booth was just that, at Bennigans Restaurant in Edmond, now Old Chicago. It’s a place Illidge and Clark would occasionally unwind in the afternoon, share stories, and play a few hands of a card game known as cribbage. Within time, the booth became a magnet,  a place for all UCO journalism faculty to unwind and share a few laughs.
            “The booth was the release of the day,” said Jill Kelsey. “It was collegiality at its best.”
            Illidge retired from UCO and teaching in 2004 after a 15-year-long battle with leukemia including three painful years of shingles, a disease caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox virus.
            “He never complained or felt sorry for himself,” said Clark. According to Mrs. Illidge, had it not been for Clark’s persistence to keep Illidge at UCO and encouragement, Illidge would have retired a few years earlier.
            “Keeping busy was a godsend,” said Elizabeth. Illidge would have three farewell parties prior to retirement. 
            During Illidge’s final weeks, his impact on others would prevail more than ever. UCO faculty he barely knew offered their sick leave to him.
            “Correspondence, letters, phone calls, and flowers from students was amazing,” said Elizabeth.
            Robert J. Illidge died at the age of 74 on April 1, 2005 in his hometown of Wichita. 
            Perhaps a big part of who Illidge was came from his own passions and values. His wife and five children came first and foremost. Illidge was a man of faith and valued loyalty and professionalism. Throughout his career, he remained passionate about advertising, teaching, and cared a great deal for young people.
            Illidge, born September 15, 1930, served time as a staff sergeant in the Korean War prior to receiving his Bachelor’s in Journalism in 1958 from the University of Missouri-Columbia. He later went on to work for several adverting agencies in the Kansas City and Wichita area as well as fulfilling his passion of teaching at numerous universities. He received his master’s in 1984 from Wichita State where he later became the chairperson for seven years.
            On his free time, he enjoyed listening to jazz music while hoping to emulate his jazz idols, Dave Brubeck and George Shearing, on his own piano.
            “Music was a big part of who is was,” said Mrs. Illidge. Illidge was also known to be a devoted Notre Dame and Missouri fan and was a “respectable golfer” as his wife put it.
            Today, while the original booth doesn’t exist, when UCO mass communication faculty get together in a new booth they always toast Bob Illidge. “Many departments have legends, Bob’s exceeded that,” said Clark. 

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