Alumni, former Chiefs react to impending retirement

By Kathleen Foody

For more than 80 years, University students and alumni have experienced the portrayal of Chief Illiniwek at Illini sporting events.

But controversy over the issue has also become a common experience for University students since anti-Chief protests occurred on campus in 1989.

Friday’s announcement of the Chief’s retirement has stirred emotions in alumni with various opinions on the issue.

Gabriel Lopez-Walle currently works as a consultant for the University and graduated in 1996 with a master’s degree in computer science.

“I personally was … against everything, so I am happy about it,” he said. “I think that it took forever, but nobody wanted to say, ‘I am retiring it,’ so they waited until somebody had to put pressure on them.”

Others are saddened by the decision, including Troy Rendleman, a 1989 graduate in speech communication.

“I’ve seen the Chief for a long time,” Rendleman said. “I hope that they’ll fight it, but I don’t know.”

Rendleman said he plans to watch the Chief’s last dance at Wednesday night’s men’s basketball game.

“We’ll be there chanting, ‘Save the Chief,'” he said.

Vanessa Faurie, vice president of communications for the University Alumni Association, said the office has heard from alumni expressing their concerns since the news came in.

“The ones we’re hearing from are disappointed,” she said. “But most alumni understand that the Board of Trustees had no other resource if University athletes wanted to play in important games held by the NCAA.”

Perhaps the most visible group of alumni is the current and former portrayers of Chief Illiniwek.

Tom Livingston of LaGrange, Ill., portrayed the Chief from 1988 to 1989. Livingston said Friday was a bittersweet day for the group of men who have worked to preserve the symbol for 80 years.

“There’s going to be a void if the Chief isn’t there,” he said. “We’re going to have to find the best way to fill that void. We’d like to help if we can.”

Livingston said the former Chiefs’ main focus is to support the current portrayers of the Chief, Dan Maloney and Logan Ponce, and continue to protect the tradition that has been formed.

Trustee David V. Dorris told the State Journal Register he is aware of the issues the retirement raises concerning alumni donations.

“Some people said they will not donate in the future (if Chief Illiniwek was retired),” he said. “Some people said they will not donate until Chief Illiniwek was ended.”

Board of Trustees Chairman Lawrence Eppley told The Daily Illini in an exclusive interview he receives cards and letters every day from alumni who say they will refuse to donate money to the University if the Chief is retired.

“I certainly hope that’s not the case,” Eppley said. “I think if you were a student here, and you were educated here, and you believe in the mission of the University, you cannot possibly put that ahead of the Chief. If you do, I guess that’s too bad.”

“This is one of the better institutions of public higher education in the country, and if you can’t understand that, I guess you’re just going to be disappointed,” he said.

Eppley said the Chief’s retirement does not diminish the enjoyment it has created for students and alumni.

“I think that’s a false assumption to assume there’s only one tradition that could ever work,” he said. “We’re always going to remember this … it’s always going to exist in people’s hearts. To me, that’s not a bad thing.”

Amanda Graf contributed to this report.