CARBONDALE — A maroon commencement robe, a Salukis bomber jacket and a megaphone marked “CHANCELLOR” sat untouched beneath a Shryock Auditorium spotlight on Tuesday afternoon as the Southern Illinois University Carbondale community said its final goodbyes to their leader.
He had been charged with resurrecting the university after years of enrollment decline and infighting. But Dr. Carlo Montemagno’s attempts to do so were cut short by a cancer diagnosis in late June. His sudden death just months later happened in the midst of “aggressive” treatment that he appeared to be withstanding.
Montemagno’s new ideas, policies and management decisions were subjects of debate across campus, and that ongoing discussion will be a part of his legacy.
But the 10 speakers who stepped up to pay tribute to him on Tuesday — administrators, professors, students and trustees, plus Carbondale political and business leaders — gave a different view of the chancellor, one that was rarely discussed during his tenure at SIU.
With Montemagno’s family seated in the front row, Carbondale’s leaders painted a picture of the chancellor as a first generation college student from an immigrant family, a public servant, a devoted family man who believed nothing was more important, a sportsman and an unabashed New Jerseyite.
They praised his immense intellect, remembering the gigantic whiteboards that famously lined his office, which he used to map out the complex academic reorganization he was advocating at SIUC. They remembered his openness and availability, his love for students, and his memory for people he’d met, even just once.
“He once told me that he answered every email that a student sent him,” said senior Emily Buice, former president of SIUC’s Undergraduate Student Government.
“It felt like he was one of us,” added Joe Locher, a former president of the SIUC athletics student section, known as the Dawg Pound. “I’d be willing to bet we were one of the only schools to have a leader who not only said he supports our teams, but had the bravery to get down next to us, cheer and join in the fun.”
In the background, the loudspeakers played a mix of Montemagno’s favorite songs, from old Frankie Valli tunes to classic rock by The Eagles and Jackson Browne, to disco, accompanied by a stream of photos of the chancellor and the Carbondale campus.
Montemagno passed away early in the morning on Thursday, October, 11, and was laid to rest with full military honors at Mound City National Cemetery in Mound City, Illinois, last Wednesday
His death was, by all accounts, sudden and unexpected. Montemagno was diagnosed with cancer in late June, after bouts of back and hip pain. As he underwent treatment, the chancellor was often seen at campus events moving with the aid of a cane or a mobility scooter.
But he did not disappear.
“He worked in spite of the physical tolls that his treatment took on him,” said SIU Trustee Marsha Ryan. “He worked every day that he was not in active treatment.”
Posts from Montemagno’s blog and Twitter page showed him visiting with SIUC students and their families and attending an SIU Aviation event with his grandchildren just days before his death.
“The chancellor preferred to move at warp speed, urging us forward with energy and enthusiasm, a twinkle in his eye, and exuding a sense of urgency,” said Meera Komarraju, SIUC’s interim provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “Looking back, we are glad he hurried. We remain inspired by his vision and his legacy that is bound to shape our future.”
Nearly every speaker on Tuesday afternoon joined Komarraju in vowing to continue Montemagno’s vision for SIU Carbondale, though the university has given little indication of its next steps towards that. First, the SIU Board of Trustees must announce the date of the special meeting where it will name Montemagno’s replacement as leader of the Carbondale campus.
Until then, the SIUC community will continue to reflect on the loss of a man who called SIU his home after just a year in office and repeatedly said that turning the university around would be his final professional achievement.
“Now that he’s done the difficult work of getting change started, it is left to the rest of us to finish,” said SIU interim president J. Kevin Dorsey at the memorial. “Together I think we can succeed in this task.”