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bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

Graduate Hannah Schmitz acknowledges her family during SIU's 142nd Annual Commencement at SIU Arena on Saturday afternoon.


bhetzler / Byron Hetzler, The Southern 

SIU celebrated its 142nd Annual Commencement at SIU Arena during three ceremonies on Saturday.


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SIU
Memorials pay tribute to SIUC student killed by freight train

CARBONDALE — The young man in the photographs appears full of life. He poses with friends, smiling; he hunches over a laptop, absorbed in a project.

Assembled by SIUC faculty and students, two memorials in the Communications Building at Southern Illinois University Carbondale honor the life of Aaron Banez, the student who died after being struck by a freight train on April 29 near the East Pleasant Hill Road overpass in Carbondale.

Banez was double-majoring in theater and cinema and photography, and he was secretary of Movie Camera Movement, a registered student organization.

The display cases also contain one of Banez’s sweaters, his skateboard and written tributes from friends. A nearby computer plays a looped video that includes some of his film projects and clips of Banez dancing.

H.D. Motyl, associate professor and interim chair of radio, television and digital media at SIUC, said he helped coordinate the memorial in the Cinema and Photography Department — the other is located in the Theater Department — because for so many of Banez’s peers, he simply disappeared from their lives one day without warning.

“Here are the reminders of him, which of course, are sad reminders; but that he doesn’t have to disappear, that he is still here,” Motyl said.

Motyl was helping Banez secure an undergraduate research grant for his senior thesis. The 20-year-old planned to combine his love of dance and his love of film to create 12 dance videos representing the zodiac signs.

“He had a ton (of good ideas). He was constantly working,” Motyl said.

Banez often took on between 18 and 21 credit hours per semester; although he was finishing his third year at SIU, he had the class standing of a senior.

“He was an overachiever,” Motyl said.

Michael Page, a senior studying mass communications and media arts, is president of MCM and worked closely with Banez on student projects; they were also co-workers at the SIU Recreation Center and good friends outside of class.

In the days after Banez’s death, people shared stories about how he had supported them in tough moments. Page was struck by how many lives Banez had touched.

bhetzler / THE SOUTHERN FILE PHOTO 

Elizabeth Hamilton shares a story about SIU student Aaron Banez, who was struck and killed by a train on April 29, during a memorial service in the Student Center Auditorium last week.

“What was really mystifying to me was, as more people that I knew and didn’t know were sharing stories, I was thinking, ‘How did he have time to make that impact on you, when I thought he was busy supporting me?’ So I suppose the best way to say it is that he made you feel important, or made you feel seen,” Page said.

Banez could often be seen riding his penny board across campus.

“For people who don’t know Aaron personally, what they probably remember was that he was making movies, dancing and on the penny board — and literally sometimes doing those three things at the same time,” Page said.

Antonio Martinez, the faculty advisor for MCM and an associate professor of cinema and photography, said he was always impressed by how adeptly Banez resolved conflicts within the group.

“Any time we had a conflict, internal or external … when (Aaron) spoke, everyone listened. He was the voice of reason. He knew how to equalize and mitigate any sort of ongoing conflicts,” Martinez said.

“It was almost like the timing of a professional comedian — he just knew what the room needed,” Page added.

As an artist, Banez trusted his instincts. He might come up with an idea for a film early in the day, shoot it later in the afternoon, stay up all night editing and have it online the next day, Page said.

“He was impulsive and quick. Really the same kinds of adjectives to describe Aaron as a person could be attributed to him as an artist,” Page said.

Page said seeing the memorials for his friend — particularly the videos of him dancing — can be both joyful and painful.

“It’s nice to see him dancing and whatnot as I’m going to class, and it was cathartic, those first few days. But … Aaron’s energy is definitely very present at those memorials, so it can reopen new wounds,” Page said.


Carbondale
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SIU Commencement
Graduate mom: Jamie Ellis talks about earning degree as a nontraditional student

ELKVILLE — For one new Southern Illinois University Carbondale graduate, it took more than "a little help from her frineds" to get by.

Jamie Ellis, one of SIUC's more than 4,000 nontraditional students, graduated with a bachelor of science in medical biology from Southern Illinois University Carbondale during commencement exercises at 9 a.m. Saturday morning.

There's a lot to celebrate in the Ellis household. Not only is Ellis a new graduate, she is also mom to 13-year-old Whitney and 9-year-old Will. Her husband, Billy Ellis, graduated from Air Assault School with the National Guard earlier in the week, returning home just in time for the SIUC graduation. 

The path to a degree for the mom of two had some twists, turns and road blocks.

“It took me a long time,” Jamie Ellis said.

She attended Eastern Illinois University after high school, but was not happy being away from home. Her mom, Rhonda Radford, had a hard time, too.

"The first time, she went to college on my birthday. Then, when we got in the car to come home, they played 'This Child of Mine' on the radio,” Radford said. “I cried all the way home.”

Ellis said she came home, found her true love and married her husband Billy. Before too long, a baby was on the way, then another. And, there were deployments. Billy Ellis, a chief warrant officer 2 in the Army National Guard, was first deployed when Whitney was two weeks old.

In 2012, Ellis started attending college part-time at John A. Logan College, taking a two-plus-two program at JALC that was supposed to transfer two full years to SIUC. While she was completing those two years, SIUC made some changes to the degree program. She found out not all of her classes would transfer.

She went part-time to SIUC for a while, transitioning to full-time the last two years. She completed the extra classes and degree requirements and finally walked across the stage to get her diploma.

“It took six years to get,” Ellis said.

She says she would not have the degree without the help of her family.

“Obviously, my husband has been absolutely fantastic,” Ellis said. “My mom and my two sisters-in-law are my biggest cheerleaders. Any time I needed help with the kids so I could study or go to school, they were there.”

Billy would take their children, Whitney and Will, on weekend adventures as well, to give Jamie time to study. She added that her church family helped a lot, too, offering prayer and practical help when needed.

Perhaps one of the reasons everyone is so willing to help Jamie Ellis is that helping others is her nature. When her hometown was devastated by a tornado on Feb. 28, 2017, she helped prepare meals at her church, all while taking a full load of classes and studying.

Now the hard work of finding a job begins. Ellis would like to work in a lab, but in a position that offers some hands-on patient care.

“I want to do something with people. I have a heart for people, and I want to help them,” Jamie Ellis said.

She also wants to do some fishing with her family.

Whitney is ready for her mom to have some extra time, too.

“I want to do crafts and spend time with her. Stuff got busy with sports for me and school for her,” Whitney said.

Billy Ellis is glad his wife is finished with school for now, too. He said she felt a lot of stress when she was gone or felt like she wasn’t present for their children.

“I’ve told her a lot lately how proud I am of the beautiful person she has become,” Radford said.


State-and-regional
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Critics: Illinois governor's race shows need for campaign finance reform

SPRINGFIELD — This year's Illinois governor's race between uber-wealthy candidates could be the costliest in U.S. history and perfectly illustrates the need for a campaign finance system that isn't so rigged in favor of the rich, say critics pushing for a system that would match small donations with public funds.

The small-donor matching program won approval in the Illinois Senate last year but its chances are bleak in the state House, despite the attention given to two inordinately wealthy candidates who are financing their campaigns with millions of dollars of their own money.

Billionaire Democrat J.B. Pritzker has already contributed $76.5 million toward his campaign and Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner has given $50 million to his own. They are on track to surpass the record-high $280 million spent on California's 2010 governor's race, when Democrat Jerry Brown defeated Republican Meg Whitman.

Critics say the Rauner-Pritzker race is a great example of how Illinois' campaign finance system discourages diversity among candidates and limits ballot access for hopefuls not beholden to well-heeled special interests.

"Being rich shouldn't give you any special entitlements to claim power to run things," said David Melton, executive director of campaign finance watchdog Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Under the proposed plan, qualifying candidates could use matching public funds for donations of up to $150. Contributions would be capped at $500 and money from lobbyists or interest groups would be barred.

A House committee heard testimony this month but didn't vote and the legislation is not positioned for approval before the General Assembly's scheduled May 31 adjournment.

But the governor's race will change the conversation, according to one sponsor, Sen. Daniel Biss, an Evanston Democrat who finished second to Pritzker in the Democratic primary after running as a middle-class candidate dependent on small donors.

"Four years ago, Bruce Rauner spent a record amount of money and now that record is going to be shattered," he said. "This is a critical way to transform our democracy and the voices of ordinary people who are drowned out now because of the role that big money plays in politics."

Pritzker's spokeswoman, Jordan Abudayyeh, would not say whether Pritzker would support small-donor matching statewide, but she said Pritzker is committed to campaign finance reform, including instituting "corporate and PAC contribution limits." The Rauner campaign didn't reply to a request for comment.

The idea is modeled after New York City's small donor program for municipal elections, which began in the late 1980s. Los Angeles and the District of Columbia have similar small donor programs.

Ian Vandewalker, a campaign finance reform expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, agreed that the plan can combat the "money arms race in politics" by opening the door for bright candidates who can draw a following but lack cash.

But he cautioned that the plan wouldn't be very effective without lowering contribution limits for all candidates, whether they participate or not. Privately funded statewide candidates can take up to $222,000 from a political party, far higher than contribution limits even on the federal level. Candidates in a race can also bypass the limits and start raising unlimited funds when one person puts up $250,000 of his own money in a governor's race, as is the case this election cycle.

To encourage participation, Vandewalker said the law would also have to curtail contribution limits on private funding to make the proposal's $500 donation limit appear like a reasonable alternative. That would be a tough sell in a state that only began limiting contributions in response to the fundraising of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted and sent to prison in part for his fundraising methods.

The public would also have to come to terms with the cost, which caps spending at $50 million per election cycle, or .05 percent of the state budget. Biss conceded that with the state in billions of dollars in debt, any new spending is view skeptically.

But Cook County Clerk David Orr said that without such a system in place, competing ideas and creative policy proposals will be squeezed out by wealthy candidates who self-finance or those who owe their success to special interests and other rich donors.

"You can't have a representative government when money drowns out ordinary voices," said Orr, who oversees Chicago elections. "Our democracy is in danger."