Alumni Spotlight—Ron Barger
Alumni of the College of Applied Health Sciences have myriad career options thanks to the tremendous diversity of programs. We periodically will put the spotlight on an alum to find out what they're doing now, what experiences they had and what AHS means to them. This week, we talk to Ron Barger, a 1977 graduate of what was then known as Applied Life Studies and who was most recently senior managing director, head of operations and general counsel at ORIX Corporation USA.
Q: Why did you choose the University of Illinois?
A: I grew up in a very small town in Southern Illinois. I was the first kid from either side of my family to go to college. I was lucky enough and did well enough to receive a scholarship and was entered into the University of Illinois. I originally went to Illinois because my mom wanted me to be a doctor. In fact, my first year at Illinois was in premed. At the end of that first year, when I finished my freshman year at Illinois, I didn't like what I was studying, and I was looking for something else I had such an affinity for sport and athletics and the things that I had been raised with that I looked at what was then the Applied Life Sciences school and enrolled in that, transferred into ALS. From there, it was a magical time, because for me, it ignited the passions that I had, something I didn't have my freshman year. When I was growing up, Illinois was this wonderful university. It still is. But it was almost something so much greater than what I could expect and so for me, going to Illinois was like a dream come true.
Q: What about AHS inspired things in you? What was it about that program or whatever you saw? Was it a brochure you saw? Was there something on campus that said, hey, transfer into ALS?
A: No, I think I sought it out. I think you have to remember back in the ancient days, when I was in school, and this was in the early to mid '70s, we didn't have the Internet in the sense we have now. You didn't have digital marketing. You didn't have those kinds of things. I knew some people that were in the college. A lot of the things that it was, what I saw in terms of kinesiology and coaching and the aspects around sport, fit with where I was in my life at that point in time. So it seemed like a natural place to transfer and to then pursue that area of my life.
Q: Were there professors that had a profound impact on you from ALS?
A: Yes, yes. I was blessed. There were several that I think—and I still think about them from time to time. Marianna Trekell was there. Jim Meisner, and, I think, Don Arnold were both involved in the summer program that the college put on for the community that I participated in and helped in. But Jim Meisner, Don Arnold—Helga Deutsch was a professor I thought a great deal of—and Susan Greendorfer. There was a class I had, and I couldn't tell you the name of it today, but it was along the lines of sociology and sport. I can remember the paper that I wrote. It was about it was about Althea Gibson and Billie Jean King and the impact that their lives and what they were doing, specifically in tennis and their larger role that they had in society because of that, because of their tennis and their recognition. I remember writing a paper in that class as sort of the capstone of that class with Dr. Greendorfer. For me, doing the research and the writing, I still have a very vivid memory of that experience.
Q: You got your law degree from SMU, so maybe AHS didn't lead to your current career path. But what did you learn here that's been instrumental to your career?
A: Vince, thank you for the question. I think there is something that I took away from Illinois—in specific, ALS at the time—a couple things, one of which was being exposed to different thoughts, different ways of seeing concepts. All those kinds of things contributed to where I wanted to go. Originally, as I graduated from Illinois, I wanted to go into politics and ultimately return to Southern Illinois and get into politics and represent that region. I ended up going to SMU and then went into a legal career, and from there, being in a large Dallas-based firm. Then I left after, I think, 17 years in private practice, and I went to a company that was being formed by Goldman Sachs called Archon, which was a real estate subsidiary of the firm and being in that organization that we grew to be worldwide, and very large. Then ultimately, I left Archon and went to a company called ORIX. In those roles, what I found is that my talent or my passion is building. It's building people. It's building organizations. It's leading. A lot of the things I took from my time at ALS and some of the classes as well as student teaching at Urbana high school was, how do you coach people? What I found is that in business, the way you move the business is through people. You help them become the best expression of themselves, the fullest expression of who they are. So the same way that you build teams in a sport environment and the same way that you educate people in a classroom is the same way you lead a business—by building people, by building processes, by building organizations and letting them flourish and letting them succeed and how you motivate and how you inspire and how you give them vision and how you build them up and how you coach them and how you mentor them. All those things go into making a successful organization and a successful business. So while there is not a direct correlation to a specific class that I took, being immersed in those kinds of activities and those experiences ultimately is what made—the success that I've had as a business leader came based upon those foundations.
Q: As you said, there's not a direct correlation between the law and what you learned at ALS. But clearly, there was the foundation in place from here and from those classes that you enjoyed. You talked about the courses you enjoyed the most. Were there any others that you could say really stood out to you?
A: I remember the anatomy classes I had. I loved cutting on the cadavers. I loved the labs, the exercise physiology labs that I had. Student teaching at Urbana High School was a wonderful classroom experience and working for a gentleman by the name of John Stergulz over there. Those kinds of things are life experiences that helped form me. I look at this stage in my life and in my career and it's one in which you're formed along the way by all those little experiences and people that touch you. One of my favorite philosophers—and a business philosopher, strangely enough—is John Wooden. Coach Wooden, if you've ever read any of his quotes, he didn't think of himself as a basketball coach. He thought of himself as an educator. Some of the things that he said, and I still follow those, I'm trying to think of the exact quote, but something like, "Five years from now, you're going to be the product of those people you've met and those books you've read." I frankly think that goes from the beginning of your life until any point in time that you look at it you are the result of those people that are around you and the intellectual curiosity and the continued learning that you have to make you who that person that you are at that particular moment. I think all of my experiences, and Illinois is certainly formational for me in terms of helping me move from a small town in Southern Illinois to widening my horizons, thinking about things more broadly than that I had until that point in time, and then launching me into, ultimately, a legal career, which then launched into a business career. I've been blessed. I've been blessed by being associated with some amazing institutions and some amazing people.
Q: What were some of your favorite on-campus and then off-campus experiences?
A: I'm glad you phrased it like that. I can tell you there are a couple of experiences specifically to AHS that I remember. There was one summer that I was working for the recreation department and was sort of the gym supervisor for Huff Gym. And I can remember being in there late at night, not another person in the gym, and looking around and feeling the people and the events that had taken place in that facility and in that gym. And just sitting there in the dark and feeling it around you and knowing that at so many different times, during the time that Huff was being used as the basketball arena and the state high school basketball championships were played there, that it touched me very deeply. I take that with me. Something that I've found as well is just the relationships I had with some of the professors. And that's what surprised me. For example, Don Arnold wrote a book with regard to, I think it was about the legal aspects of the administration of physical athletics or physical education and athletics in public schools. I was in law school when he sent me a draft of it and said, will you look at this for me now that you're in law school? Having that sort of relationship was something that impacted me. Having professors that were very engaged with you, were very willing to be a part of your journey, and that's something—I don't have a specific recollection of a class. I can just tell you the way I felt is that they were engaged and willing to be partner, mentor and coach, and teach me along my journey. So that's a wonderful thing. You ask about things that happened that were off-campus. I happened to be on-campus my freshman year when all the streaking was going on. So I can still remember that part of the college experience. I have just the fondest of memories of the University of Illinois. Walking down the quad late at night, I remember walking on campus as a freshman, feeling like you didn't know a soul and when you walked away as a senior, you couldn't pass five minutes walking down the quad without running into somebody and seeing a friend. At that time, I think you're very impressionable. I think you're very open to what is available to you as you're in that part of your life and for me, it was a very formative time.
Q: In closing, I'd like to ask you what you would say to someone, a prospective student, to recommend the College of Applied Sciences?
A: I've been fortunate to be on the Board of Visitors and so I've had an opportunity to be around the college. I am deeply impressed with Dean Hanley-Maxwell. I think she is doing a phenomenal job guiding the college, expanding its reach, enhancing its reputation, looking at ways to integrate what the college is doing, what AHS is doing, into other parts of the university, other parts of the community, and frankly, other parts of the world. I'm really impressed with that and the depth of the areas that the college now touches is amazing. A good friend of mine has recently rejoined as the head of development, Jean Driscoll. I think she will be a wonderful return addition and an Illini coming back home to lead development for the college. Every time I go to a board meeting, and I listen to what is being done, I am amazed. I'm gratified by what I hear and frankly; I am just so thankful that I was able to be a graduate of that college and this University. So if you have a passion in this area, you can take this college, the curriculums that it provides to you, and do amazing things. I think it also prepares you for, if that is not where you necessarily see your journey ultimately taking you, it gives you a great foundation for going and following that dream, if you have something outside of it. I look at my undergraduate degree as being something that has been foundational for both my legal career and my business career. And I think that is probably even more enhanced today with the current state of AHS.