Started as an idea at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, the Lincoln Academy’s annual recognition ceremony for outstanding Illinoisans will take place in Rockford this spring.

Lincoln Laureates to Celebrate in the Forest City

At the 1964 New York World’s Fair, brilliant minds conceived the idea of having an annual recognition ceremony for outstanding Illinosians. Thus, the Lincoln Academy was born and continues to honor such individuals today. This year, the ceremony takes place in Rockford for the first time in nearly 50 years. Jon McGinty reveals who made the cut in this look at the Lincoln Academy’s past, present and future.

Emily Bear, 16, an outstanding pianist, composer and songwriter, will be the youngest Lincoln Laureate ever.
Rockford’s own Emily Bear, 16, an outstanding pianist, composer and songwriter, will be the youngest Lincoln Laureate ever.

The Lincoln Academy of Illinois is a nonprofit organization based in Springfield, whose mission is to recognize Illinois citizens who’ve made outstanding contributions to their local, state, national and global communities. Each spring since 1964, at a public convocation held in revolving locations throughout Illinois, these recipients are inducted as Laureates into the Academy and awarded the Order of Lincoln, the highest honor given by the state.
This May 5, the ceremony returns to Rockford for the first time since 1970. It will be held in the Coronado Theatre, which celebrated its 90th anniversary, and will constitute an Illinois Bicentennial event, since this is also the 200th birthday of our state. The Lincoln Academy is a member of the Bicentennial Commission and an official partner with the City of Rockford and the Friends of the Coronado for this event.
Of the eight recipients this year, two are from Rockford: Emily Bear, the outstanding pianist, composer and songwriter who, at 16, will be the youngest Lincoln Laureate ever; and David Rydell, Chairman of Bergstrom Inc., a global designer and manufacturer of climate systems for commercial vehicles. Rydell serves on several nonprofit boards and is a lifelong contributor to charitable causes and organizations in the greater Rockford area.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling, a Regent of the Academy, is co-chair of the Rockford Civic Committee with his wife, Myrna. They’re assisted by vice- co-chairs Beth and Ed Howard. According to Borling, the ceremony will consist of the convocation and a concert, both free and open to the public. A gala reception will follow reserved for sponsors and other paying guests.
The convocation will begin at 5:30 p.m. with a formal Academy processional featuring a world premier composition by Rockford Symphony Orchestra (RSO) Music Director Steve Larsen, performed by the RSO and chorus, including participation by Rockford University. Gov. Bruce Rauner, Academy Chancellor Dr. Stephanie Pace Marshall and Lincoln Academy trustees will then formally present the recipients with the Order of Lincoln. They join a cohort of 340 men and women so honored since 1964.
After a brief interval, the RSO will perform a patriotic memorial concert in memory of the late Tom Johnson, a prominent Rockford attorney and former Chancellor of the Academy, who was an expert on the life and times of Abraham Lincoln. He authored a series of articles about Lincoln in the Rockford Register-Star in the 1990s, and composed the text on plaques at the Lincoln Square in downtown Rockford and Veterans’ Memorial Circle at North Main and Auburn streets.
Emily Bear, along with the RSO, will perform an original piano and orchestral composition she created for the event, a world premiere. This will bring to close the public portion of the evening.
“Following the concert, the Governor’s gala reception will be held for those whose financial support have made the event possible,” says Borling. “Besides special food and drink, there will be wine tasting tables (courtesy of Tony Artale) and a spectacular cordial and dessert extravaganza on stage for sponsors and other paying guests.”
To sign up for the free convocation and concert, go to A full house is expected. Paid invitations, which include reserved seating for the convocation, concert and gala (black tie suggested), are available now at the Lincoln Academy website for $175 per person. Sponsorships are also available at the site. Click on “Join Our Community.”
Dr. Stephanie Pace Marshall is the 10th chancellor of the Lincoln Academy and the first woman to hold that position. She is a world-renowned educator, lecturer and author from Chicago, and is the founding President and President Emerita of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), the nation’s first three-year public residential institution for high school students academically talented in STEM curriculum. Marshall became a Lincoln Laureate herself in 2005, was appointed a Regent in 2012, and elected vice-chancellor in 2014.
According to Marshall, the Lincoln Academy idea got its start at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, when the State gave a party at the Illinois pavilion on Illinois Day, Aug. 26, for some of its most celebrated citizens. The guest list included Abraham Lincoln’s great-grandson, UN Ambassador Adlai Stephenson, musicians Benny Goodman and Cab Calloway, and actress Mercedes McCambridge. The event was hosted by then-governor Otto Kerner.
“The gathering made an impression on Michael Butler, the head of the Illinois organization for economic development,” recalls Marshall. “A spark was lit. He encouraged Gov. Kerner to continue the notion of honoring Illinois citizens who had made contributions both in their chosen fields and in service or philanthropy for the betterment of humanity in the spirit of Lincoln, whom we claim as our native son.”
Each year since, with the active support of the sitting governor, the Lincoln Academy has nominated and selected prominent Illinoisans, either by birth or residence, as possible Laureates.
“We seek outstanding citizens in 10 areas, although we don’t always have recipients in all 10,” says Marshall.
The categories include business, industry and communication; education; government and law; medicine and science; religion; social service; sports; arts and performing arts; agriculture; and labor.
Of the 60 trustees appointed by the governor, 19 are elected as regents to constitute the governing board of the Academy. Laureates are selected by the trustees. The annual convocation is held in various locations throughout the state.
“Given the high honor, we take Laureate selection most seriously,” says Marshall.
In 1975, the Academy took on another mission. To complement the selection of Lincoln Laureates of today, it now also honors college Student Laureates, “young people of exceptional promise,” at an autumn ceremony held at the Old State Capitol in Springfield. The Governor and Chancellor preside, with the full Academy in attendance.
“Every president of each of 57 public and private four-year degree-granting institutions in Illinois is deemed an Academic Trustee of the Lincoln Academy,” Marshall says. “The students, all seniors, are vetted and selected by the presidents of the colleges and universities.”
Planning discussions at the Lincoln Academy have included possible ways Student Laureates could better connect with each other and with Lincoln Laureates in the future. Marshall suggests that such connections could facilitate the continued development of projects and initiatives started on campuses, as well as some Lincoln Laureates serving as mentors to students, or hiring them as interns on particular projects.
“Such connections could have an enormous impact, not only on the careers of Student Laureates, but on the State of Illinois,” says Marshall.

Lincoln Laureates of 2018

As mentioned, 16-year-old pianist and composer Emily Bear will be the youngest person ever to receive the Order of Lincoln award from the Academy. Last May, she graduated from high school two years early. She’s now taking a year off to write music, to perform a concert at the Hollywood Bowl and to perform several jazz concerts, including a benefit for a hospital that does life-saving heart surgery on children in underprivileged countries. This July 4, Emily will perform Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” at Millennium Park in Chicago with the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra.
She recently returned from a seven-week, 25-concert stadium tour in Europe called “The Night of the Proms.”
“The European tour has been an incredible experience,” she says. “The people on stage and behind the scenes are top quality and super nice, and the audiences have been fantastic. Performing alongside legends such as Peter Cetera from Chicago, Roger Hodgson from Supertramp and Melanie C from The Spice Girls has taught me a lot; they are amazing on stage and off.”
Emily is excited about composing the new orchestral piece that will be premiered at the 2018 Lincoln Laureate Convocation ceremony.
“It’s amazing to be honored alongside such esteemed people who are receiving the award this year, and to be part of the honorees from other years,” she says. “I’m super proud of my Rockford roots and I’m looking forward to many more music adventures, whether it’s film scoring, pop song writing, orchestra compositions, jazz or anything else.”
David Rydell is chairman of Bergstrom Inc., a designer of climate systems for the commercial vehicle industry. Its headquarters is located south of Rockford on Blackhawk Road. Rydell joined the family business in 1963 after graduating from college. He became president and CEO in 1986, and chairman in 2011. His company has global production capabilities and is recognized as a technology leader in the industry.
Rydell has served on the boards of many nonprofits in the greater Rockford area since the 1960s. He currently serves on the boards of SwedishAmerican Health System, Rockford University, The Salvation Army of Winnebago County and the Golden Apple Foundation. He recently left the board of Transform Rockford when his term expired.
“I believe the commitment of the nonprofit sector is critical to the future of the Rock River Valley,” Rydell says. “The Bergstrom Inc. Charitable Foundation has supported such organizations in our region for more than 45 years, helping people in crisis, providing education, health care and the arts.”
In 2015, Rydell’s company sponsored an event at the MetroCentre to honor veterans and their families from the Rockford area, and more than 5,000 attended. Titled “Stars and Stripes,” the program included a speech by retired Army Gen. Colin Powell, as well as performances by RSO, the Mendelssohn Chorale and Emily Bear, who composed a piece just for the event, titled “The Bravest Journey.”
“My wife and I had followed Emily’s career since she was six years old,” says Rydell, “but we did not meet her until that fall. We were so happy she agreed to honor our veterans the way she did. I think she’s the most exceptional person to come out of Rockford.”
When contacted by the Academy concerning his nomination for the Order of Lincoln, Rydell says he was shocked.
“It’s a tremendous honor to be nominated for this award,” he says. “When I look at the list of other recipients, it’s beyond incredible.”
Other honorees include the following:
Dick Butkus was drafted by the NFL’s Chicago Bears in 1965, after an outstanding athletic performance at the University of Illinois. He played nine seasons as linebacker for the Bears, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979. He’s been supportive of charitable activities through the Butkus Foundation Inc. for years.
Steven Chen an alumnus of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy and became the co-founder and chief technology officer of YouTube after moving to Silicone Valley in 1999. Since then, he has helped build YouTube into a premier entertainment destination and one of the most popular websites on the Internet today.
Rev. Michael J. Garanzini is a Jesuit priest who has served as a university administrator, professor and scholar. He was president of Loyola University in Chicago for 14 years and became its chancellor in 2015. Father Garanzini is known for his work on behalf of children and families, and for being a champion of Jesuit higher-education issues.
Mellody Hobson is president of Ariel Investments, chairman of Ariel Investment Trust and director of Estee Lauder Companies and Starbucks Corporation. She is chairman of After School Matters, a nonprofit which provides Chicago teens with high-quality after-school programming. She also chairs the Economic Club of Chicago’s board of directors.
Edward L. McMillan grew up on a family farm in McDonough County, Ill., and became a leader in state and national agribusiness, notably as president and CEO of Purina Mills. He has served on many industrial, civic and philanthropic boards of directors, including as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
Louis H. Philipson is professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Chicago, and a leading world authority on diabetes mellitus. He is the founding director of the Kovlar Diabetes Center and president of the Chicago Community Leadership Board of the American Diabetes Association. Dr. Phillipson also directs research in preventing and treating type 1 diabetes.

The Spirit of Abraham Lincoln

“We are all successful because of those who have come before us and on whose shoulders we stand,” Marshall says. “These people recognize that profoundly, and are all, in their own way, modeling and embodying the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. They have all done astounding things, but it’s this elusive spirit of Lincoln which distinguishes them.”
For more information about this event, go to and click on “Join Our Community,” or contact Executive Director Julie Kellner at [email protected] or the Borlings at [email protected].