A tough act to follow: Uni bids farewell to Marilyn Upah-Bant
By Lizzy Warner
Gargoyle staff reporter
Posted Friday, Feb. 2, 2007, The OG, news
FOR 15 YEARS, Marilyn Upah-Bant has been synonymous with Uni High. Starting as the school's journalism teacher and Gargoyle adviser in 1992, she quickly moved up the ladder to become director of development and alumni relations.
But that familiar face is now gone — at least on an official daily basis. Upah-Bant's final day at Uni was Wednesday. She left to become the coordinator of communications for the University of Illinois' new Center for Advanced BioEnergy Research, a job she started Thursday.
“The new position will involve more marketing, promotions, and publication production than my current job at Uni but also will involve some fund-raising work with corporations, foundations and other grant-making entities,” Upah-Bant said in an e-mail interview with the Gargoyle shortly before she left. “I dearly wish I could stay at Uni for one last graduation but the new position begins Feb. 1.”
The road to Uni
Before coming to Uni, Upah-Bant worked as a journalist for the Champaign-Urbana Courier, a newspaper that was housed where the Courier restaurant now is. When the paper closed in 1979, she moved to The News-Gazette, where she worked as an editor for two years.
“After doing technical writing and media relations for the College of Agriculture when my two sons were young, I also worked as the features editor at The N-G in 1985
but found the work took too many hours away from my family,” she said.
She then became a communications specialist with the U of I Foundation, which is in charge of fund-raising efforts for the University. By 1992 Upah-Bant had grown a bit bored by the job and was ready for a new challenge.
“When I saw the Uni job advertised, I decided to see if I could get it and was thrilled when I did because I already knew about Uni High and wanted to try teaching,” she said.
In her first two years at Uni, Upah-Bant worked part time as Gargoyle adviser and journalism teacher, keeping her full-time job at the U of I Foundation.
“The Gargoyle staff had 14 people trying to use one small Mac,” she recalled of her first year. “We used two Polaroid cameras that I wrote a grant to get. You guys have really come a long way!”
In 1994, Uni decided to create a new full-time position that would be responsible for fund raising and alumni affairs. Upah-Bant felt the job was right for her.
“I decided there were probably a lot more good journalism teachers in Champaign-Urbana than people who would do both the alumni relations and development jobs,” she said.
Uni's MVP since 1994
Since then, Upah-Bant has been a true “most valuable player” for Uni High. She and her longtime assistant, Cathy Eads, brought much-needed direction and organization to the school's alumni office, building a comprehensive database of graduates and establishing valuable contacts with alums throughout the world.
Along those lines, she made sure the various class reunions ran smoothly, hosting up to 10 or 15 reunions per year. And because the minute a Uni student graduates he or she is considered an alum, Upah-Bant was also a crucial figure in setting up graduations every year. Her “Uni-lumination” of new graduates became a commencement tradition.
Upah-Bant, who has a bachelor's degree in journalism from Northern Illinois University and a master's in journalism and political science from the U of I, also oversaw the publication of the school's alumni magazine, AlumUni, and the monthly newsletter, U'n'I.
“I had the pleasure of working with Marilyn for seven years, from 1998 to 2005,” said David Porreca, current Gargoyle adviser. “I edited U'n'I during that time and helped with AlumUni. What really struck me about her was how much she cared for this school and for the students both past and present. So much of what she did was behind the scenes, the kind of work that's absolutely essential but never gets the public recognition it deserves. I hope students, parents, and faculty truly appreciate how much she's done for Uni. ”
Upah-Bant was instrumental in securing major donations to the school and setting up such programs as the Stoddard Faculty Support Endowment Fund in 2001 and the John Hedeman Fund for Faculty Salary Enhancement two years later. On a lighter but no less important note, she oversaw the establishment of the Wylde Q. Chicken Award, given annually by the Class of 1972 in recognition of student creativity and originality.
One of the biggest events during her tenure came in October 1996, when she organized the school's 75th anniversary celebration. Alumni from all classes came back for the big event and enjoyed meeting the then-current Uni student body.
Upah-Bant's connection to the school became more than that of an employee in the mid- to late-1990s, when her oldest son, Jason Bant, attended Uni.
“Jason was a member of the Class of 1998 and earned a bachelor's in chemical engineering from the U of I in 2003,” said Upah-Bant. “He was not thrilled that I was working at ‘his' school, but we both got very good at ignoring each other during the school day. He is now working on a computational biology Ph.D. at Northwestern. He actually was a substitute teacher at Uni in 2003 and 2004 and also went on the Greek trip last summer with Mr. Butler [history teacher Chris Butler], me, [Director/Principal] Kassie Patton, and a great group of Uni students.”
She and her husband, Geoff Bant, have another son, Alexx Bant, who went to Urbana High School and is an undergraduate at American University in Washington, D.C. In fact, Alexx was elected in October as the vice president of AU's Class of 2010.
Time to go
So after 15 years, why did Upah-Bant decide to leave Uni?
“With the campus plans to go public with a $1.5 billion (BILLION, not million) campaign in June, this seemed like a good time for this transition rather
than in six or 12 months,” she said. “Uni's goal for the campaign is now $6 million (the goal was just reduced from $10 million this week), and we have already raised
$2 million during the quiet phase of the campaign. I think it is time for some new energy and a new face to work with our 3,000 alumni to reach that goal.”
She pointed out that if each of Uni's alums were to give $2,000 over the next five years, the school would each its $6 million goal.
But that will be someone else's concern. Upah-Bant will have more than enough to keep her busy in her new job. The Center for Advanced BioEnergy Research, or CABER, is a new campus unit that will offer joint appointments to U of I faculty and researchers who are involved in enthanol and other biofuel research.
Upah-Bant's position was important not only to Uni but to the U of I. Therefore, in the search for a replacement, it is up to both Director/Principal Kassie Patton and the U of I's chancellor of development to find someone suitable for the job.
At this point Uni and the University are almost ready to advertise the job. The position will be advertised throughout campus in an attempt to attract applicants with experience in development who are already familiar with the U of I.
The application and selection process is expected to take up to six weeks. During the time that no one is in the position, Assistant Development Director Monica Fountain, Patton, and those who have worked with Upah-Bant are expected to share her previous responsibilities until a suitable applicant has been selected.
Leaving behind lots of fans
The administration and faculty will miss their popular colleague.
“She is the most thoughtful person ever,” Patton said. “Whenever she goes on a trip she brings back presents for everyone: the secretaries, me, Ms. Kovacs [Assistant Director Sue Kovacs]. Once, when we were in New York, she saw a tie with math stuff on it and just bought it for Mr. Russell [math executive teacher Craig Russell]. She sees things and thinks someone will like them, and she gets it. She's just a very giving person.”
“Every December she would give me a little present before winter break,” he said. “They were either amazingly clever and witty or very useful. The best gift was two years ago, when she gave me some scented sticks for my office. For the next year and half, whenever the custodians came up to my office on a Thursday night, they would invariably say how great everything smelled. I had to keep telling them that Marilyn was the person to thank for those sticks.”
One of Upah-Bant's closest friends over the years has been fine arts executive teacher Rick Murphy, who wore black this week in mourning of her leaving.
“She's a very giving person, and she's just so nice to everybody,” he said. “She's really great about setting things up and making students feel that it's about them. And that's not an easy thing to do.”
Upah-Bant has indeed been an active part of Uni, from going with students on the Greece trip to “illuminating” the graduation ceremony to hosting pizza parties for recent alumni every winter break to simply providing students and faculty with delicious little treats.
For her part, Upah-Bant wishes everyone well.
“I have loved my time at Uni High and hope the person who is lucky enough to assume my job is half as happy as I have been,” she said. “However, to quote Bryant
Gumbel, ‘It is far better to leave a job two years too early than one year too late.' I have enjoyed working with more than two complete ‘generations' of Uni students and know I will enjoy reading about their future successes in the AlumUni or whatever publication replaces the alumni magazine.”