CARBONDALE — Southern Illinois University Carbondale Chancellor Carlo Montemagno, 62, passed away early Thursday morning, according to SIU Interim System President J. Kevin Dorsey.
“This was unexpected. Even though he carried a diagnosis for which he was being treated, this was sudden and unpredicted,” SIU trustee Dr. Marsha Ryan said.
Montemagno publicly announced in late June that he had been diagnosed with cancer, however, his official cause of death remains unknown.
“As many of you know, I have recently curtailed my public schedule in order to address significant back and hip pain. The pain was originally thought to be cysts,” he wrote on his Chancellor’s Blog on June 27.
“The cause of the cysts ... has now been identified as cancer,” Montemagno wrote on his blog. “ I won’t go into more detail here other than to say we are treating it aggressively and I am confident that I will be around for a long time.”
Throughout the last few months, Montemagno underwent an “arduous and draining” regimen of treatment that included chemotherapy, according to members of the SIU Board of Trustees, who emphasized the chancellor’s resilience and commitment to the Carbondale campus.
“He worked in spite of the physical tolls that his treatment took on him,” Ryan said. “He worked every day that he was not in active treatment.”
Since the cancer announcement, Montemagno had been seen moving with the help of a cane or mobility scooter. Yet posts on his Twitter account showed he was an active presence on campus, visiting with students at university events within in the past week, and even attending an SIU Aviation event with his grandchildren this past Saturday.
Throughout his treatment, Montemagno gave no public indication of the type of cancer he suffered from, and never indicated any change or decline in his condition.
However, Carbondale Mayor John “Mike” Henry said he received notice Tuesday evening that Montemagno had had a “significant medical event,” possibly related to complications from his treatment. Sources say Montemagno was airlifted from Carbondale to a hospital in St. Louis, where he died Thursday morning.
SIU hired Montemagno in August of 2017 to turn around the struggling Carbondale campus, which has been plagued by enrollment decline.
Previously, he was a renowned nanotechnology researcher and biomedical engineer.
He began his career as a Civil Engineering Corps officer in the U.S. Navy, according to his academic biography, and was later on the faculty at Cornell University and University of California Lps Angeles, where he published more than 60 papers and was awarded several patents.
“I’m a builder. My entire career has been building things,” he told the Daily Egyptian in June.
He built tiny medical devices, machines as small as a blood cell, that could revolutionize the way we detect, visualize and treat diseases.
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“We use living systems in nature as the inspiration; we use nanotechnology, the ability to manipulate matter at its smallest scale; and we build systems in the understanding that we have to make these small elements work together in complex networks,” he explained to Folio, the journalism website of the University of Alberta.
“Carlo was always a visionary, especially in the area of nanotechnology,” said George Bachand, a colleague who co-authored six papers with Montemagno while at Cornell University. “When he and I worked together, nanotechnology was just heating up as a field. I was blown away by his ideas and vision.”
Later in his career, Montemagno became a builder of organizations. He was the founding dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Cincinnati, and then led a team of 35 researchers at the Ingenuity Lab, a nanotechnology lab he was appointed to create, at the University of Alberta.
Then, Montemagno took on SIU Carbondale.
He brought new ideas and sought to cut costs, improve cross-departmental collaboration and, ultimately, improve enrollment numbers.
Montemagno leaves behind an extensive campus reorganization project that would eliminate the university’s 42 departments and reorganize degree programs under new schools. Montemagno said the plan would foster interdisciplinary innovation.
About half of the new proposed schools have been approved to date, while others remain in a process of faculty review.
“Dr. Montemagno was a visionary who worked tirelessly to advance SIU Carbondale. He created a roadmap to secure the university’s future; earned the respect and commitment of faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members; and was an unwavering proponent of the university’s mission” Dorsey wrote on Facebook. “His loss will be deeply felt at SIU, in Southern Illinois and in the scientific and academic communities.”
Montemagno is the second recent chancellor to die while in office. Dr. Paul Sarvela, who was appointed interim chancellor of SIU Carbondale in July 2014, passed away just months later, in November 2014.
An interim chancellor will be appointed to succeed Montemagno at a special meeting of the Board of Trustees, according to Dorsey's Facebook post.
“Until then, I will work directly with SIU Carbondale’s leadership team to ensure that the university continues to move forward,” Dorsey said.
The date for that meeting has not been set, said trustee J. Phil Gilbert, out of respect to the many people grieving throughout the Carbondale and SIU communities, especially the chancellor’s family.
Montemagno is survived by his wife, Pamela, two children and five grandchildren.
A vigil will be held in his honor Friday, at 5 p.m., at the Student Services Building Pavillion, on the SIUC campus.