See bios and alumni stories below.
2018 Distinguished Alumni Awards
Kristie Fleckenstein earned the Doctor of Arts in English at ISU in 1989. She is now a professor and director of Rhetoric and Composition at Florida State University.
A native of Grand Ledge, Michigan, Fleckenstein chose Illinois State University for its Doctor of Arts program in English because it aligned with the professional goals she had at the time.
“In the mid-1980s when I returned to graduate school, I originally wanted to teach writing in a community college setting,” Fleckenstein said. “The department’s focus on pedagogy informed by scholarship was a perfect fit.”
By then she had already put in nearly a decade teaching high school English. From there, she taught for two years in community college settings before returning to graduate school to pursue her doctorate. She’s taught at Purdue University-Calumet, University of Missouri-Kansas City, Ball State University, and at Florida State University since 2006.
Over the years, Fleckenstein has earned awards for her teaching and writing. However, this Distinguished Alumni Award from Illinois State is pretty special.
“It is a tremendous honor, one that reminds me how much I learned while working with the faculty in the Department of English,” Fleckenstein said, adding that she gained more than content knowledge and protocols for conducting ethical research while here. “I learned how to think flexibly, and finally, I learned that effective teaching and effective scholarship must emerge from the union of heart and head.”
Fleckenstein said her teachers at Illinois State taught her lessons in humanity that have lasted throughout her career.
“The faculty inspired me to remember that students are more than a name on a roster, a paper in a pile to be graded, or a nuisance to be avoided,” she said. “They are people, and to forget that is a violation of our own personhood.”
Fleckenstein described her entire career as something of a surprise. She never imagined she’d be a full professor at a research university where her scholarship and teaching are so tightly linked. She has taken inspiration from her students’ energy and innovative thinking and has been “remarkably blessed by my career in and out of the classroom.” All of it has been anchored, she said, by her preparation at ISU.
2018 Distinguished Alumni Awards
Ron Stacker Thompson earned the Bachelor of Science degree in English Education at ISU in 1964 . Thompson, chair of Screenwriting at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, grew up in Chicago and was motivated to further his education by two women he knew very well growing up. One was his mother, who instilled in him the notion that everyone in the family had a job to do.
“My mother said it was my job to go to school and do well,” Thompson said. “She would question me about any B’s I got, and C’s were unheard of.” The second influential woman was a teacher, Mrs. Sams, at Chicago’s Farragut High School who totally inspired him to want to make people feel the way she made them feel. That’s how he picked Illinois State, because he looked up to a teacher.
“All I ever wanted to be was his English teacher, and Illinois State Normal had this great reputation for teaching teachers how to teach,” Thompson said. From there his interests and talents developed further by exploring things he was curious about.
“Everything I am and became comes from Illinois State,” he said. “Everything I wanted to try, I did here. I discovered that I had a speaking voice and a singing voice. I learned I could dance and that I could act. And, I learned gymnastics by joining Gamma Phi.”
Thompson said he put all these talents to use in his career as an actor, director, and writer—all of which became part of his life’s work. For 20 years he’s been an associate professor and chair at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. He’s won numerous awards for his work and has worked alongside many celebrities, but this award from Illinois State holds a prominent place in his office and in his heart.
“When department chair Chris DeSantis sent me this letter back in April I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I cried; I was really tearful. It was so unexpected. Even now when I think of that moment, I get emotional.”
Thompson said he’s always felt connected to Illinois State, even though he hadn’t actually set foot on campus in 53 years.
“I wasn’t a donor or anything, so this award is coming from a real place,” he said. “I’m honored. This is an award for all that I am. That school made me who I am. It gave me the confidence to be me, to try things, and to never doubt myself.”
His feeling for Illinois State was cemented, he said, way back when the school honored him as a top 10 senior. “As a black man that meant so much to me, and this was in the early 1960s,” he said.
Robert Bone, the University’s ninth president, had a lasting influence on him.
"I worked in his office, and he was so kind,” Thompson said. “I have been in a leadership position many times in my life. He was smart, witty, caring, and he let you know that you were as important as he was and not less because he was the top man.”
Thompson also has fond memories of Bone’s secretary, Dorothy Richardson. “She had an influence on me as well because I did a lot of work directly for her,” Thompson said. “She had this way of being stern in what she expected from you, but loving in how she dealt with you.”
Thompson takes pride in his accomplishments, but he has perspective on what truly matters…family. He’s proud of his nearly 50-year marriage to his wife Cle, whom he met when both were young teachers in Chicago, and their daughter Ashley, and the two grandsons she has blessed them with.
2017 Distinguished Alumni Awards
Carol Clarke earned the Doctor of Philosophy degree in English Studies at ISU in 2000. She is vice president of Academic Affairs at The Mico University College in Kingston, Jamaica. For Carol, coming to this far-off and sometimes frozen land to study was a big decision for a native of Jamaica.
“At first I had no clue as to where to study, but I knew I wanted to be somewhere where I could write,” Clarke said. “The Fulbright program coordinator assisted in the selection, and ISU was chosen because of its writing program.”
Clarke has been in her current position since 2008. She has oversight of all programs, including graduate, undergraduate, and short courses. Previously, she spent a decade in the classroom as a teacher. She then became a teacher-educator, followed by six years as a depart-ment head.
Receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award, she said, is “really a wonderful endorse¬ment” and “validation of my years of work and dedication to teacher education.” She added that it is also a proud moment for her family.
Her time at Illinois State made her more purposeful, she said, and brought more balance to her creative writing and her academic/scholarly work.
“Being at ISU sharpened my poetic sensibilities, especially working with Dr. Lucia Getsi on The Spoon River Poetry Review as manuscript reader,” Clarke said. “The ISU experience enabled me to contribute significantly to writing courses for programs in literature and language locally and abroad.”
She called ISU the place that “jump started” her professional development.
“Immediately on return (to Jamaica) from my studies, I was promoted to principal lecturer,” she said. “Within two years, I was promoted again” to head of the language department.
She also cited her studies at ISU for making her promotion to associate professor of English a reality. She said many of her teachers here made an impact on her life, and she was amazed at the personal interest they took in her development, especially compared to Jamaica.
“I’m from a culture where there is a professional distance between student and teacher,” she said. “I felt more like a peer/colleague than a student. Drs. Getsi and (John) Shields especially went the proverbial extra mile to challenge me, keep me focused, and add an exciting dimension to my research and scholarship.”
And now, years later, Clarke knows what it’s like to be the teacher helping the student.
“It is always a pleasure to be reminded how I’ve impacted the lives of students,” she said. “Many of them have become successful in areas such as education, law, health, aviation, politics, and business. But my pride and joy is to see my students who have turned out to be successful writers, both academic and creative.”
Clarke believes her time ISU played a role in her 2011 award from the Book Industry Association of Jamaica for “Best Text Book at the Secondary Level” for her text, Carlong English B for CSEC.
One of her proudest moments, she said, was being named interim president for The Mico University College, the first woman so named in the institution’s 181 years.
2017 Distinguished Alumni Awards
Mark Hellner earned the Bachelor of Science degree in English at ISU in 1973. Mark is an attorney; he’s in the business of helping people in need. A Springfield native from a modest background himself, his public school education continued here at Illinois State.
“I had a great public education,” Hellner said. “And, ISU gave me a little more confidence and furthered my interest in the world.”
Hellner has never forgotten his working-class roots, but it was as an undergrad at ISU that he learned to expand his thinking.
“ISU taught me not to put my bricks on my head,” he said. “Nobody in my neighborhood had a parent who went to college. ISU helped me learn that outside expectations were something you could ignore.”
Through Tom Eimermann, former professor and retired chair of the Department of Politics and Government, Hellner’s connection to the University remained strong as a member of the pre-law committee for several years.
Hellner has worked in private practice, in a corporate setting, and for the state at the Department of Revenue as general counsel and ethics officer. In addition, he has served as adjunct professor of law at the University of Illinois College of Law. Since 2012, he has worked full-time at the Center for Disability & Elder Law, becoming its executive director two years ago.
“We offer free legal service for low-income seniors and adults with disabilities,” he said. “We use a lot of volunteer attorneys.”
Hellner was a serious student in his undergraduate days and was a member of the Honors Program all eight of his semesters. He was on the Dean’s List seven semesters and was a Robert G. Bone Scholar, in addition to earning a graduate-level interdisciplinary fellowship in English and Political Science. He was also chair of University Forum, which brought prominent speakers, including world leaders, to campus from around the globe and “may have artificially raised my profile,” he said in typically understated fashion.
He had the opportunity to work for people on campus who influenced him greatly, including a couple of presidents in David Berlo and Gene Budig. He also was an assistant to Charles E. Morris, mathematics professor and secretary of the University. And, he had a history professor, Ted Sands, then head of the Honors Program, who made a lasting impression. With all that, he was surprised to be honored by his old department.
“My first reaction was deep surprise, and what did I do to deserve this?” Hellner said, adding that he felt humility. “I really don’t feel like a distinguished alum. I’ve tried to help people as best as I can.”
This award from his alma mater inspires him to keep up the good fight.
“I had a blessed life at ISU, and this makes me rededicated to helping people,” Hellner said. “Secondly, I want to pay it forward.”
And, so he has. One of his proudest moments came recently when his organization represented a Chicago-area family facing eviction from their home of 20 years after spending their savings on medical bills after their son was paralyzed in a diving accident. The litigation lasted nearly three years and involved hundreds of hours of free legal work, but through media coverage, crowdfunding, and the generosity of strangers, the family prevailed.
“They got their house back debt-free on their 32nd wedding anniversary,” Hellner said proudly.
2016 Distinguished Alumni Awards
Michelle Martin earned the Doctor of Philosophy degree in English Studies at ISU in 1997. Martin is a children’s literature scholar at the University of Washington in Seattle. She began her position as the Beverly Cleary Professor of Children and Youth Services at the university’s Information School on September 1, 2016.
In her academic career, she’s held positions at Stephen F. Austin State University, Clemson University, and she was the inaugural Augusta Baker Endowed Chair in Childhood Literacy at the University of South Carolina in her hometown of Columbia, South Carolina.
So, what was the attraction to Illinois State?
“ISU had a reputation for being one of the oldest and best children’s literature programs in the country, and that was a factor,” Martin said. “But, the way Roberta Seelinger-Trites and the other faculty who would become my mentors reached out to me when I was considering coming to ISU really sold me on the program.”
It was a decision that helped shape her future with the support of what she described as a “top-notch” faculty.
“The faculty care deeply about their students,” Martin said. “That made a huge difference in my quality of grad school life at the time and has made my professional life go much more smoothly than it would have had I not been sure I could reach back for that support and mentoring when I needed it.”
Among her career highlights are holding not one but now two endowed chairs. She’s been president of the Children’s Literature Association, the major organization in her field (even co-hosting the 2014 conference and 350 children’s literature scholars). And, she’s most proud of Read-a-Rama, a themed literacy immersion project she created in South Carolina.
“It’s a 501(c)(3) outreach program that I started in 2001 at Clemson University and built into a camp in 2009 that uses children’s books as the springboard for all programming activities,” she said. “We have held six summers of Camp Read-a-Rama, and in my new position as the Cleary Professor, I hope to make Read-a-Rama a national model for full-immersion literacy outreach.”
The Distinguished Alumni Award, she said, means that her “work as a children’s literature scholar is being recognized as important and that what I have accomplished since graduating from ISU’s English Department has made a difference both within the profession of English Studies and in the lives of hundreds of children through my children’s literature outreach programs.”
2016 Distinguished Alumni Awards
Robb Telfer earned the Bachelor of Arts degree in English Education at ISU in 2003 and the Master of Arts degree in English at ISU in 2006. He had spent a year attending Columbia College in Chicago when he decided he wanted to be part of the Illinois State National Champion speech team while studying to become an English teacher.
These days Telfer finds himself working in a pretty interesting place, one of the world’s largest and best known museums of natural history, Chicago’s Field Museum. As the Calumet outreach coordinator, the focus of his work is on Chicagoland ecological conservation.
“I organize community engagement with nature often through habitat restoration,” he said in describing his work.
Telfer taught English composition and creative writing at the College of Lake County for a year. He was then hired as performances director of Young Chicago Authors (YCA), a creative writing teaching nonprofit. For six years, he organized the group’s “Louder Than a Bomb” program, the largest youth poetry festival in the world. For a year he worked as a freelance writer, performer, and teaching artist. And, he spent seven months as a copywriter for one of the largest advertising firms in the world, Leo Burnett, also in Chicago. He’s been at the Field Museum since 2015.
Telfer, a Joliet native who grew up in Elwood and Homewood, keeps his schedule pretty full as he pursues a dual career path.
“I have two careers that aren’t as dissimilar as they sound,” he said.
In addition to his work at The Field Museum, he also teaches and performs poetry with a performance poetry teaching artist collective called Project VOICE. The group has five members who teach and perform poetry in schools all around the world.
His work over the years has been recognized with several awards. He received the Wallace W. Douglas Teaching Award for his work at YCA; and, he is an inductee of the National Forensics Association Hall of Fame after competing on Illinois State’s speech team. In addition, he received an Orgie Theatre Award for best curation for a live literature show called The Encyclopedia Show, which ran for six years in Chicago and has been staged in about 30 cities around the world; the show still runs in Minneapolis and Tempe. The Encyclopedia Show was a joint effort by Telfer and his Illinois State English, speech team, and Normal Poetry Slam fellow alum Shannon Maney.
Telfer said receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award was “unexpected and pretty cool.” He said he feels lucky and grateful for the work he does and for the friends he made during his time at Illinois State. Poetry performance has allowed him to travel extensively, including nine overseas trips.
“The two communities I was a part of—speech team and the literary community—helped me develop my concept of what a community could be and how it can enhance your life,” Telfer said. “Both communities yielded lifelong friendships and set the ground work for my community organizing today.”
2015 Distinguished Alumni Awards
Ray Wallace earned the Doctor of Arts degree in English at ISU in 1985. He was named chancellor at IU’s Southeast campus in New Albany, Indiana, on July 1, 2014. He’s been a provost and senior vice chancellor, a dean, a director of a state’s designated honors college, a division head, a director of writing, and a university writing center director.
Wallace has published five books, including two award-winning volumes on writing pedagogy. His postdoctoral work includes a Fulbright-Hayes project in South Africa, selection to Harvard’s Management and Leadership Program, and an appointment to the Japan Foundation’s research delegation for U.S. educators.
Here’s a listing of schools where he has held faculty/administrative positions: the University of Hawaii at Hilo, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Kennesaw State University, Northwestern State University of Louisiana, Troy University, Clayton State University, and the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith.
In addition, he’s an award-winning nature and travel photographer. An exhibit of his work, “Documenting Direction: Global Spaces and Faces” has had a run during the month of October in the Barr Gallery on his campus in Indiana.
Wallace arrived in the U.S. in 1978 on a track scholarship at Eastern Illinois University, where he earned undergraduate degrees in English and Physical Education and a Master of Arts in English. He also represented Northern Ireland from 1977-1981 in international track and field competitions throughout Europe. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1989.
“I’m very pleased,” he said of the honor. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without those professors at ISU. That department changed my life.”
Wallace had a mentor, Jeanne Simpson, who was finishing up her doctorate at ISU and she recommended ISU’s program.
“I went up there in ’82 and really liked it. It was so professional,” Wallace said.
Instrumental faculty members that Wallace appreciates to this day include: Irene Brosnahan, Jan Neuleib, Ron Fortune, and the late Maurice Scharton.
“They really worked us very hard in that doctor of arts program,” Wallace said. “And, it was not just that they taught us in the classroom, but they taught us how to be professionals in the field.”
2015 Distinguished Alumni Awards
Madeline Ostrander earned bachelor’s degrees in English and Biological Sciences at ISU in 1997. A non-fiction writer based in Seattle, her writing has appeared in Aljazeera America, Science, The New Yorker, The Nation, and PBS Nova Next, to name a few. She spent six years as senior editor of Yes! Magazine. She was a 2014 National Health Journalism Fellow, a fellowship awarded by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
The focus of Ostrander’s work is science, the environment, pollution, and climate change. She said she feels a deep sense of responsibility and is humbled by the people she writes about. The stories she pursues have no boundaries, and to that end, she’s spoken to farmers and nuns in rural Kentucky, inner-city Los Angeles residents living in poverty and pollution, salmon fishermen in Seattle and native Alaskans.
Ostrander was honored with the Illinois State University’s Outstanding Young Alumni Award in 2008. This latest award brought her back to campus for the first time since 2008, and she was excited to reconnect.
“There’s something quite stirring about going back and visiting the people and places that influenced you in early adulthood,” she said.
She said the University provides “support, inspiration, ideas and encouragement” to writers like herself, and she said she knows she’s not the only one.
“I know that I’m one of many ISU English alumni who have gone on to do meaningful work since graduation,” she said. “It’s an enormous honor that the English Department is choosing me as a representative of what one can do in the world armed with a good education and an understanding of language, writing, story, and culture.”
Ostrander said what she learned as an Illinois State undergraduate resonated with her then and still does today.
“A number of my professors at ISU helped me see a connection between the power of storytelling and social change,” she said. “I believe strongly in what I do and in the role of writers and journalists in creating an informed society. Those convictions have a lot to do with what I learned in literature classes about how stories shape culture.”
2014 Distinguished Alumni Awards
Lisa A. Wagner earned the Bachelor of Science degree in English Education at ISU in 1993. Wagner is president and CEO of Lisa Wagner & Company, Inc., a fundraising and project management firm based in Chicago that she founded in 2004.
Wagner worked as an English teacher when she was introduced to then U.S. Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) in 1998. Hastert invited Wagner to work on his re-election campaign in 1998. In 1999, Hastert was chosen as Speaker of the House. Wagner was Hastert's national finance director from 1998 to 2007 and worked with Hastert for 11 years.
In addition to serving as CEO of Lisa Wagner & Company, Inc., Wagner is also the company's lead political finance consultant. From 2007 to 2012, she was a finance consultant for Mitt Romney's (R-Mass.) 2008 and 2012 campaigns for President. In addition, Wagner has consulted at the federal level for the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. She was a political finance consultant to President George H.W. Bush (R-Texas) and for the Bush/Cheney campaigns in 2000 and 2004.
Wagner has consulted for members of the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate, including U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), former-U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) and former U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.). At the state level, Wagner has consulted for Florida Governor Rick Scott (R-Fla.), former Governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.) and for Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross (R-Ill.). Wagner has consulted for corporate and nonprofit clients and causes also. An announcement that Wagner was hired to consult on former Governor of Florida Jeb Bush's (R-Fla.) 2016 Presidential campaign came in January 2015.
Wagner was named one of Crain's Chicago Business "Top 20 most powerful political insiders" in September 2015.
2014 Distinguished Alumni Awards
Scott L. DeWitt earned the Master of Arts degree in The Teaching of Writing at ISU in 1988 and the Doctor of Arts degree in English at ISU in 1992. Dr. DeWitt is Associate Professor of English and vice chair of Rhetoric, Composition and Literacy at The Ohio State University, where he has taught since 1992. For ten years, he taught writing, developed academic programs and conducted research in computers and composition studies on the Marion Campus of OSU. An Ohio State Alumni Association Distinguished Teaching Award recipient for his pioneering teaching approaches with technology, DeWitt moved to the Columbus campus in 2002 to become the director of The Digital Media Project, the Department of English's digital media production and teaching studio.
In 2002, DeWitt published Writing Inventions: Identities, Technologies, Pedagogies (SUNY, 2002), which offers instructional stories, histories and classroom applications and connects the theoretical aspirations of the field with the craft of innovative computer-enhanced composition instruction. Writing Inventions was awarded the “Computers and Composition Distinguished Book Award." In 2004, he directed the Battelle Endowment Institute for New Media and Writing Studies on the Ohio State campus. From 2007 to 2011, he directed the First-Year Writing Program.
DeWitt is currently the editor of a scholarly collection of curated exhibits (with H. Louis Ulman and Cynthia Selfe), Stories That Speak To Us: Exhibits from the Digital Archive of Literacy Narratives (Computers and Composition Digital Press, 2013), and is working on a book, The Optimistic Turn: Authentic Contexts for Peer Review in the Composition Instruction, that examines a corpus of 5000+ pieces of student writing. For the past two years, he has been developing an online peer review application, The Writers Exchange, with colleagues in Rhetoric, Composition and Literacy.