Memorial Service for Congressman Robert H. Michel '48

Below are President Roberts' reflections given at the memorial service for Congressman Robert H. Michel '48 on February 25, 2017.

It is a great privilege to welcome all of you to Bradley University, the place Congressman Michel called home for a time, where he got his civilian start, and the place that he loved so much for many decades and gave back to over and over again with his time, his wisdom, his wealth, and his friendship.

I am incredibly honored, touched, and humbled by being asked to make a few remarks at this event.  But as I was struggling to come up with appropriate laudations, I was reminded of the words of another great and humble statesman from Central Illinois who over a century-and-a-half ago, when asked to dedicate a cemetery located on the site of a great battle, remarked that no words he could speak that day could further dedicate or consecrate the ground on which that cemetery stood.  He said:

“The brave men . . . who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”

And so it is for us now.  While the setting today is very different than it was when President Lincoln uttered those words, the sentiment he expressed perfectly reflects our challenge today.  There are simply no words that I could say now that could add an inch to the stature of the great man we have come here today to honor, or that could be a more fitting tribute to him than the great and good life he lived and all that he accomplished for the betterment of his country, his community, his beloved university, and indeed for all of his fellow beings and those who will follow.

But it is nonetheless fitting that we gather today to say good-bye to Bob Michel and at least to make an attempt to tell the world what he did for and meant to all whose lives he touched.  And so I will try, perhaps in vain, to express just a small measure of what everyone at Bradley University has in their hearts for perhaps our greatest alumnus.

I never had the honor of knowing Bob Michel well personally. The only time I interacted much with him was in 1982 when we were together for a day and sat at the same lunch table when both of us were being given an award by Bradley – his being Bradley's Distinguished Alumnus award.  Of course I knew of Bob's stature and position, so I was naturally somewhat in awe and a bit intimidated, but unnecessarily so as it turned out.  He was the most friendly, humble, genuine, and gracious person I could have imagined – even after he discovered that I lived elsewhere and couldn’t vote for him. And since that day, the impressions I gathered of him have been reinforced over and over again as I have heard untold numbers of stories about what a remarkable man he was and how he used his charm and diplomatic skills to accomplish great things, to bring people together, and positively to impact the world in which he lived.  Others to follow me today will no doubt tell some of those stories from his time as a leader in Congress, as a family man, as a friend, and as a patriot.  I can only relate what I have heard and what he meant to everyone here at Bradley University.

Friends here often talk about what an amazing singer Bob was and how at the drop of a hat he could break into song.  When he was a student and a member of the Bradley A cappella choir, he met Corinne, the love of his life.  I have heard tales of his uncanny knack for politics and leadership from his earliest days as a student.  He even caught the attention of the University president who encouraged him to apply for the job that led him to a lifelong career in public service.

Another thing people here remember about Bob is that he was an amazing listener, no doubt because he cared so deeply about other people.  He had a way about him that made everyone comfortable and willing to share their thoughts and ideas.  And everyone knew he was genuinely interested in what they had to say.

Bob could cut to the core issues of a problem in mere moments, but he was never edgy or short or insulting.  He was described as having an ‘aw, shucks’ attitude, which was never to be mistaken for a lack of intelligence or ability.

And when he spoke, he didn’t speak just to be heard.  So when he did open his mouth, everyone knew his words had meaning, and people listened. And most telling, everyone agrees that even when he was at the height of power, he was always a gentleman -- down to Earth, giving and kind.

As one of our most illustrious alums who has received just about every honor we can bestow at Bradley, he returned to campus often to share his knowledge and experiences with our students.  He was a role model exemplifying civility and leadership.  His oratory skills were extraordinary.  When he spoke everyone was captivated.  He impressed on them that mutual respect, integrity, and a commitment to consensus are more important and impactful than one-upsmanship or partisan political “victories.”

Ironically, the very traits that made Bob Michel so loved and respected, as well as a great leader who was able to accomplish so much, led some eventually to criticize him because they believed a more confrontational “in your face” approach was preferable.  Some of those critics were among the architects of the political environment we endure today, which fact itself is a testament to Bob’s wisdom and greatness.

Bob was a member of Bradley’s Board of Trustees from 1982 to 1994, and then was given the position of Honorary Trustee, a distinction bestowed on only three others in Bradley’s entire history.  In 1999, we named the student center in his honor, to show our appreciation for all that he had done for his alma mater as a teacher, an advocate, a role model, and a facilitator – one example of which was his arranging the financing of what is today the Caterpillar Global Communications Center that houses the headquarters of the Slane College of Communications and Fine Arts.

Bob was a statesman, a gentleman, a teacher, a patriot, and a man who made a difference in the lives of all whom he touched.  He has been a mentor and an inspiration to many generations.  Bob Michel was the very best of the greatest generation.  We at Bradley are forever indebted to Bob and Corinne for their love and loyalty to their alma mater and for their distinguished leadership.

He will be missed for a long long time by all of us on the Hilltop.  We say good bye today to a dear friend.