My Dad, The Crusader

I learned a lot about my father yesterday when I read the following article for the first time. The story was published in the Carlisle Sentinel on May 21st, 1994 and my mother had slipped a photo copy of it into my 2013 birthday card. We don’t check the mail that often, but Bob had a reason to go downtown yesterday and retrieved the card which arrived nearly three weeks ago on my 59th birthday. I was tickled that a reporter had taken the time to construct a pretty comprehensive biographical sketch of my father.

I knew my father was the kind of person who stood up for his ideals but I didn’t realize to what extent. My uncle, my father’s older brother Frank, once said, “Your dad was born in the wrong time, either 100 years too early or 100 years too late.” Like my father, I also often feel as if I were born into the wrong generation. I’m more suited for the pre-women’s liberation era. Back when the hard work involved in homesteading and nesting were not looked down upon. I expect in another 50 years, as our supply of cheap oil dwindles, my kind will again flourish as the majority.

In other ways I resemble my father, particularly in temperament (easily over-stimulated and quick to anger) but also cursed with a keen sense of fairness and the dogged resolve to right the wrongs of the world. Try as I might, I’m often unable to stick to my own knitting and paddle my own canoe. If someone isn’t pulling their weight, I feel compelled to bring it to their attention. I crave justice and deplore people who deceitfully wrangle themselves a free ride. And I’ve long opposed the endless murder and destruction wrought by the hands of the great American War Machine.

Frank and John 1947
My father and his older brother in 1947.

Here’s the article:

John Illo Your Neighbor
by Rich Lewis
Carlisle Sentinel May 21, 1994

Webster’s defines “crusader” as a person who takes “vigorous concerted action for some cause or against some abuse.”

Meet John Illo. Like the original crusaders, he is pushed into action by his Christian principles.

A retired Shippensburg University English professor, the 68-year-old Oakville man has waged a private war against his former employer for more than a dozen years over what he sees as a threat to academic honesty and integrity.

It is just one of the many times in his career Illo tilted with large institutions over matters of principle. He often stood alone. Sometimes it cost him his job.

“The position of the stoic (philosophers) is,’If it’s not true, don’t say it. If it’s not right, don’t do it.'” says Illo. “But the Christian position is, ‘If it’s true, say it. If it’s right, do it.’ That’s all. It’s as simple as that.”

Illo’s continuing battle with Shippensburg University began in 1981 when he learned the school was allowing students to get help from tutors when writing papers.

“If a student signs his name to a paper he should be the author of it, not a tutor.” Illo insists. “Authenticity is no longer a value. What used to be considered fraudulent is now authorized.”

Over the years, Illo took his complaint to the university president, the State System of Higher Education, The Legislature, the governor, the attorney general and the state inspector general. All decisions went against him.

Shippensburg University President Anthony Ceddia made the school’s position clear in a September 1993 letter to Illo: No accrediting group has criticized our policies or practices in regard to revising writing.” Ceddia called the tutorial program “state of the art.”

He told Illo he was “entitled to your various…opinions,” but the school and its faculty were comfortable with the tutorial program.

But Illo won’t let go. He continues researching, writing and trying to stir up interest in the issue. His most recent effort was an April 19 letter he fired off to conservative legend William Buckley, editor of the National Review.

“I think a wider and more influential forum is needed for exposure and reform,” Illo wrote to Buckley, “Do you think the National Review would publish the story?”
If Buckley turns him down, you can bet Illo will take his thick file elsewhere. It’s not in his nature to quit.

A native of the Bronx, Illo and his family moved to New Jersey when he was 5. He attended Catholic schools and entered the University of California at Los Angeles in 1943. Drafted in 1944, he served in the Philippines. When he returned, he picked up his college studies at Fordham University in New York, graduating in 1950 with a degree in English.

The detour to California was due to his father’s work.

“My father left home when he was about 13 and joined the carnival and the rest of his life was in theater. He got a job in San Francisco and we moved there.”

Frank Illo supervised stage hands. “And that’s what I was when I came back from the war.” John Illo says. “The job entailed moving scenery. We’d bring the show in, set it up and move the scenery around.”

Illo grew up around the theater and entered the stagehands’ union on his father’s coattails. “You couldn’t get in without a relative in the union. It used to be a father-son union, a closed union.”

Illo began his teaching career in 1956, but continued to work as a stagehand until the late 1960’s. “I had to. I had to supplement my teaching salary.”

Illo and his wife, Janice, a former model, have six children. They wed in 1953 and both worked on Broadway. He hauled scenery for “Diamond Lil” starring Mae West. “Private Lives” (Tallulah Bankhead) and “Take Me Along” (Jackie Gleason).

After graduating from Fordham, Illo enrolled at Columbia University to pursue a master’s degree, which he was awarded in 1955.

He landed his first teaching job in 1956 at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. “They told me at Columbia in 1955 that I wouldn’t be able to get a job with just a master’s, but it was a teachers’ market at the time.”

Teachers’ market or not, the pay was low. Illo earned $4,000 at St. Vincent. “I worked the theater all the time.”

After a year, Illo moved east to teach for a semester at Monmouth College in New Jersey. His next stop was Iona College, a Catholic school in New Rochelle, N.Y.

He spent five years at Iona where he had one of his biggest collisions with a powerful bureaucracy, the Catholic Church.

In 1962, the U.S, Supreme Court handed down a major decision on school prayer.

“This was the decision in which parents from Long Island objected to a state composed prayer that was said in public schools.” Illo recalls. “The Supreme Court said such a prayer conducted by a public employee in a public school was unconstitutional.”

The court decision “appalled most of the clergy, Illo says. Richard Cardinal Spelman, head of the New York Archdiocese, “said he was shocked and frightened by it.”

Spelman was a powerful figure in both church and political affairs. He was not a man to cross swords with, especially for a lowly English professor at a school overseen by the diocese.

“I published a short letter in the New York Times defending the decision and commending the Supreme Court and I signed it.” Illo says.

The letter appeared on a Sunday. On Monday, Illo was supposed to start teaching a summer school course. “I came in and my wife said, ‘You got a call from the college. Don’t go in. You’re not working.'”

Illo drove to the college, confronted the summer school director and threatened to sue. “We batted back and forth and no one ever mentioned the Times, but we both knew what it was about. He said, ‘Go down to your office and wait’ …and half an hour later he calls and says, ‘Come in tomorrow night.'”

But the backlash continued. The president of Iona called Illo “impertinent,” said he had hurt the school and the letter was “like a slap at Spelman.” Illo says there was “awful hostility from some of the alumni,”

Ironically, within a few years, the Catholic clergy “turned 180 degrees and said they didn’t want public school prayer.”

Illo walked away from the summer school job. Was that the first time he spoke up for his beliefs “Good heavens, no. I’ve been fired other times from summer jobs.”

Illo stayed at Iona another year, during which he formed the school’s first chapter of the American Association of University Professors, a professional organization that investigates complaints by faculty against colleges. “There was a lot of hostility by conservative members of the faculty,” he says.

In 1963, Illo moved to Monmouth College for “a better salary.” He taught at the prestigious private college for seven years, securing his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1969. The time was marked by “numerous run-ins with the administration.” including disagreement over a graduate program in English Illo considered an “absurdity” because of low standards.

But his resignation from Monmouth flowed directly from his deep opposition to the Vietnam War.

In 1970, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, a top military adviser to presidents Kennedy and Johnson, was scheduled to speak at Monmouth.

“It just happened to be Earth Day. The first Earth Day.” Illo remembers. “Some students came to the faculty and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to do something about Maxwell Taylor’s presentations, and I said, ‘OK, count me in.'”

The students and faculty protested Taylor’s visit, “they threw marshmallows at him.”

But the college’s decision to invite Taylor to campus was too bitter a pill for Illo to swallow. “As a consequence of that, I resigned.”

Illo’s memories of the intensity of feeling about the war are still sharp. “Boy, was there hatred. If you weren’t in it, you don’t know. God. They would kill you. I mean people were just furious. There was so much hatred in that time.”

Illo’s next and final stop was Shippensburg. “It was a better offer. Shippensburg was upgrading. They were hiring people from all over the place.”

He had numerous “run-ins” with the Shippensburg administration “over standards and trying to maintain standards. Like trying to maintain, as a minority of one, the requirement of a foreign language for English majors, which has disappeared.”

But the battle over tutorial help for students became the focus of his passions. He has written dozens of letters and articles. He has several thick files crammed with materials related to the dispute, much of it accumulated since he retired from teaching in 1986.

Judging from the correspondence, school and state officials consider the issue closed. Illo doesn’t. “I won’t let go no matter what happens.” he vows.

“Basic writing standards have declined and writing centers and tutors contribute to that. I don’t want the school to continue saying that up is down.”

And Illo worries about the future. “Standards and honesty will continue to decline. Maybe that’s the wave of the future that we are no longer authentically ourselves. Maybe that’s the new life we are looking at.”

Illo is also actively involved in environmental and anti-abortion movements. He continues to write and publish scholarly work on literary topics.

Robert Wynne, a retired Shippensburg University government professor, has known Illo since 1973. “He is my friend in the truest sense. He has always been there.”

Wynne says Illo is a Renaissance man “not concerned with just one thing but with everything.” who has “put together his own philosophy and lives by it.”

He describes Illo as “very people-centered, concerned for their welfare and that they live life to the fullest.”

And whether William Buckley answers Illo’s letter or not, his crusade will go forward.

By Camille Armantrout

Camille lives with her soul mate Bob in the back woods of central North Carolina where she hikes, gardens, cooks, and writes.