John Bowling has called Bourbonnais and Kankakee County home for 33 consecutive years, and he continues to do so to this day.
There is no shortage of people who are thankful the longtime president of Olivet Nazarene University has chosen to stay put, especially when you consider he has had numerous opportunities to move on.
“John is a nationally recognized figure,'' said Phil Kambic, president and CEO of Riverside Medical Center. “For him to want to live and remain in Kankakee County is a blessing for the area.”
It's a decision Bowling has grappled with several times. In 2005, he was elected to the prestigious position of general superintendent of the Church of the Nazarene. He declined, but when elected again in 2009, he accepted before quickly undergoing a change of heart and rescinding the offer to remain at Olivet.
Those opportunities are well known to the public, and there have been others as well. An international publishing company invited him to pursue its presidency, as have several other universities. He has given at least some consideration to all of them, but always has come to the conclusion that Olivet is the place he should be. The reason is two-fold.
“I have come to realize there is a special quality to leadership in one place over a long period of time,” he said. “The careful growth and development of a university takes time, and I felt that if I would stay at Olivet, I might be able to strengthen the university in ways that could not be done during a shorter term of leadership.”
The other factor that has compelled Bowling to stay is what he has found off campus.
“I also think that it takes time to genuinely become part of one's community,” he said. “My appreciation for the people of the Kankakee area has deepened across the years, and I feel an obligation to do all I can to enrich our shared life.”
Because of Bowling's devotion to Olivet and the community at large, he has been named the Daily Journal Citizen of the Year for 2015. The newspaper has honored top citizens since 2002, and this is the 10th consecutive year it has awarded a Citizen of the Year honor.
The award coincides with a couple of historic landmarks for Olivet. It celebrated the 75th anniversary of its move to Bourbonnais in 2015, and this year marks the 25th year Bowling has been the university president, a job he took after spending eight years as the pastor of the College Church of the Nazarene in Bourbonnais.
At a community celebration held last fall to mark the anniversary of the relocation, Bowling directly addressed an issue which had not been often discussed in the public forum. He spoke of the initial uneasy relationship between Olivet, the fairly new Church of the Nazarene, and its predominately French-Canadian Catholic neighbors in Bourbonnais. He spoke of how the two groups operated independently and basically kept their distance from each other.
Then he spoke of how the barriers dissolved and a strong, thriving relationship has formed, and he continues to speak about it.
“My sense is that the relationship between Olivet and the surrounding communities has never been better, and I am so thankful for the many ways the community enriches the life of the university,” Bowling said. “Over time, we have become good friends and family. Olivet graduates teach in our schools, help run our area businesses, work in our hospitals and social service agencies, and raise families in our various neighborhoods.”
Bowling tends to deflect credit for helping the relationship grow, and is more apt to praise his predecessors as president, Harold Reed and Leslie Parrott Jr.
Those men certainly planted the roots, as Jeff Hammes, president of Peoples Bank of Kankakee County, can attest. At the same time, Bowling has furthered the relationship like no one before him.
Hammes' grandfather, Romy Hammes, was a prominent Catholic businessman in the immediate post-World War II era, and despite the perceived friction between people of his faith and those of the Nazarene faith, he developed a strong relationship with Olivet's leader.
“One of the earliest inroads came when Dr. Reed and my grandfather became good friends,” Hammes said. “Since then, Dr. Bowling has opened the doors wide to the community.”
Hammes points to Olivet's ability to draw the Chicago Bears here as the NFL team has held training camp on the campus since 2002. He refers to community events that take place on the campus, such as the numerous Kankakee Valley Symphony Orchestra performances. He also points to the outreach efforts of Olivet students, who perform volunteer work for organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army.
Bowling also is proud of the outreach, especially since it comes from the segment of the Olivet community he values the most. It's a consistently growing segment, as enrollment has more than doubled during Bowling's tenure and Olivet has set records for enrollment year after year for the past decade or more.
“I genuinely like the many varied aspects of my job, but the students are my primary focus,” he said. “The university exists for students, and they have the potential of making a huge impact in the world.”
The student body holds Bowling in similar esteem.
“It seriously feels like Dr. Bowling is always with students,” said Spencer Allen, a 20-year-old junior from Bourbonnais who is studying electrical engineering. “From seeing him at basketball games and having the whole student section chanting his name until he acknowledges us, to showing up at all the school events, Dr. Bowling's presence is definitely always felt on our campus.”
While Olivet has upheld its strong spiritual commitment over the years, Bowling has even embraced one of the current crazes of modern society.
“I love that Dr. Bowling is always up for a good selfie,” Allen said. “There's so many of them out there, including a whole month dedicated to who could get the best one with him.”
No one exactly knows what will prove popular in the coming years, but Bowling already has set his sights on the future. Olivet's strategic plan is called Vision 2022 and calls for an additional $50 million in campus construction by the time that year has passed.
The expansion would come after Olivet invested $180 million in new construction and renovated buildings throughout the past decade. Those projects have brought two new jewels to the campus, the Hawkins Centennial Chapel, which was completed in 2010, and the Perry Student Life and Recreation Center, which was finished in 2012.
Bowling realizes it will be a challenge to realize the vision, but it's not like he hasn't conquered challenges before. Ten years ago, he climbed to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, the tallest mountain on the African continent and the highest free-standing mountain in the world.
“That is a mountain of a different kind,” Bowling said of Vision 2022. “But should be just as exhilarating and rewarding.”