Robert Easter — the accidental president


Portrait by Sonny An | The Daily Illini

Standing at his retirement party at the Colonnades Club in Memorial Stadium, President Robert Easter was asked if he could wait just a few more months. 

Chancellor Richard Herman asked if he could serve as interim provost for the Urbana campus in 2009, and Easter thought, “it would be an interesting way to go out.” The balloons and streamers were taken down. 

However, during Easter’s time as interim provost, the now infamous admissions scandal broke, leading to the resignation of the majority of the University’s administration. Consequentially, Easter was asked to stay just a little longer — this time serving as interim chancellor until Chancellor Phyllis Wise was hired. 

Easter was then able to retire. But, just for five months.

On a Sunday afternoon in March 2012, he received a phone call from Board of Trustees chairman Chris Kennedy, asking him to come back to work at the University. This time, as president. 

“So that’s it. It’s an accident. The accidental president,” Easter said.

Easter will now retire on May 17, after almost 40 years of working at the University. He had planned to cap his career at 33 years after he served for the College of ACES as a professor, department head, interim dean and finally dean – Easter’s favorite position at the University.

“The really fun job was dean of agriculture. In part, because I was at a level that I could impact things, both within the college and also externally,” Easter said.  “And it was a time that we weren’t really in desperate financial shape, so we could do some good things.”

While he deems himself “accidental,” Robin Kaler, campus spokeswoman, said Easter is the opposite — a visionary who brought the University stability and fixed its reputation. 

Easter said he hopes his legacy will be that he helped the University return to a state of normalcy. 

Easter himself is an Illini. He earned his Ph.D. at the University in animal science in 1976. University president wasn’t always someone Easter expected on his career path. 

While Easter was completing his doctorate, a faculty member left to work for Purina. The department asked Easter to serve as a lecturer and he ended up staying for four decades.

Ironically, current chairman of the Board of Trustees, Ed McMillan, was the executive who recruited the leaving faculty member. 

“So I told (McMillan), ‘It’s all your fault!’” Easter said. 

McMillan’s fault or not, Easter said he thinks ultimately he made the right choice. He chose to work at the University over another job offer at Texas A&M, where he earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Now that Easter can finally retire from his six days a week, 19 hours a day job, he said he’s excited to just rest and spend time with his wife and family. Easter said the demanding job is really a team effort, with his wife, Cheryl, leading the pack. She truly works as much as he does, Easter said, between hosting and attending all the other events that accompany being president.

“When I was asked to take this role she said, ‘Well this is something we can do together,’ and I thought: ‘what a great way to end a professional career,’ Easter said. 

Although he enjoys sports, Easter’s true hobbies are reading, farming and building and repairs. Cheryl is the sports fan in the couple — “a fanatic,” according to her husband. The Easter family lives on an acreage where he has four different trees and a garden that he enjoys tending to in the warmer months. 

Easter also has a workshop but claimed not to build anything ‘too exotic’ just regular household items – and a swimming pool. 

“Oh yeah, the swimming pool. That was years ago. Just borrowed a back hoe, dug the hole, poured the concrete, put a liner in it and that was it,” Easter said casually.

Easter said until a few years ago he did all of the family’s home repairs himself. He replaced the roof on his son’s Champaign home, but when it came time to repair his own roof he hired someone else. 

Easter has one son and one daughter, who both live in the area. With six grandchildren, Easter said he sees at least a few Illini in the bunch, although the oldest is only 13.

His church, family and life experiences have molded the core principles in his life, he said.

“We had three children, we lost a son in a snowboarding accident, about four years ago,” Easter said.  “And I guess all of those kinds of experiences develop one’s personality.”

Although, Easter grew up raising hogs on a farm in southwest Texas, he wasn’t always working toward an animal science degree. He had completed two years of community college and was planning on earning a history degree from Texas A&M and then going to law school.

After spending a summer working as a secretary for a legislator in Austin, Texas, another legislator told him he shouldn’t waste his knowledge he already had in swine and animal nutrition. It was then that Easter decided to declare a major in animal science.

His career in animal science has taken him far in both the academic world and the physical world. In 1988, the American Soybean Association asked Easter to present a seminar in China to help build a market for Illinois soybeans. At the time, Easter said, he thought it was a one time deal. Since then, Easter estimates he’s been to China at least 30 times.

“When you’re doing things in agriculture you’re typically out somewhere so it was an opportunity to see a country in transition but also to learn a lot of the culture too,” Easter said. 

Although Easter has been an educator and administrator for nearly forty years, it seems as if he himself never stops learning.

Easter recalled serving on a faculty search committee early on in his career, when a senior faculty member asked, “Will this person make us better?” Easter said it was then that he realized the focus should be on how the unit as a whole can improve.

“And if somebody else was better than me, I’d learn from ‘em,” he said. 

Easter said he was also greatly influenced by senior commanders during his 20 year career as a military reserve officer. 

“You’ve got to get people to believe in what their doing, believe it and work together to keep building,” Easter said. 

Throughout his career Easter believes the core principles that guided him stemmed from the University’s values which allowed ordinary people, as he considers himself, to do extraordinary things.

“This place has an incredible level of integrity, it has an incredible level of collaboration,” Easter said.

Kaler said not only will she and other faculty miss Easter’s leadership but also the fresh harvest he brought into the office every fall. 

“He’s just the kindest person I’ve ever met,” Kaler said. 

As his time as a University leader comes to an end, Easter said he’s looking forward to helping President-elect Timothy Killeen fill his shoes. Easter said although the University’s financial challenges are a concern, he is sure the University will weather the storm.

“I’m an optimist and I have confidence that whatever challenges there are we will pull through and the University of Illinois at the end of the day will be a better place,” Easter said. “I’m absolutely confident 20, 30 years from now when you come back you’ll still come back and be very proud of Illinois and the University of Illinois.”

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