"Inspiring" was the overwhelming description from those who saw former British Prime Minister Tony Blair speak Friday at Judson University.
Blair was the keynote speaker of the Elgin university's third annual World Leaders Forum, following Mikhail Gorbachev last year and George Bush the year before.
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Maureen Dixon, a Geneva resident and mother of a Judson senior, attended the community event at the campus' Herrick Chapel for the second year in a row.
"It's so close to home, you just can't pass up the opportunity when they're here," she said.
Dixon enjoyed the mix of personal and political reflection Blair fit into his five-minute opening remarks and 40-minute question-and-answer period.
The World Leaders Forum is Judson's largest fundraiser of the year. Half the proceeds go toward the endowment fund for an entrepreneurial studies program proposed for Judson University, and the other half pays for student scholarships. Tickets to the VIP event were $2,000 each, though many of the corporate sponsors donated more than that.
Tickets to the more affordable community event cost between $65 and $100. About 600 people packed the chapel for the later program while closer to 150 people were admitted to the VIP event, where Blair gave his keynote address, "Leadership Insights: Faith, Power and the Post Modern World."
After the keynote address, attendees had the chance to get their photos taken with Blair, and they all received an autographed copy of his book.
Shalina Wozny, a sophomore at Judson, volunteered during the VIP event, helping check in members of the audience and coordinate the photos. She is the student body president-elect and a member of the Judson Student Organization, which is regularly tapped for on-campus volunteer efforts.
Wozny said students have been excited for the forum all week as organizers made final preparations.
"When we host things like this it makes us feel like we're part of something greater," Wozny said.
During the community event, Nate Adams, a Judson University trustee and alumnus, served as moderator, asking a variety of questions submitted by audience members in advance. The discussion covered a range of topics, including Margaret Thatcher's death, military activity in the Middle East and the Koreas, religion and political leadership.
Blair spoke of his decision to involve Great Britain in the war in Iraq, saying he believed it was the right decision at the time and in looking back the world was better off with Saddam Hussein out of power. While the decision to intervene created consequences, Blair said there are consequences to nonintervention too -- and responsibilities for counties that have the power to act.
"There really are very few countries that are able to carry that responsibility of shaping and leading the world," Blair said. "And that's why it's important -- America, that is prepared to shoulder that responsibility, really needs to do so."
Blair told stories about his time in office, his relationships with former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush, and his commitment to highlighting faith as a force for good.
Last year, Gorbachev gave a more formal speech during the community event and followed up with a short Q-and-A. The timeline was reversed with Blair, who comfortably directed his answers to the audience, making jokes and laughing along with the crowd.
The stated goal of the World Leaders Forum is to "inspire and ignite the flame of leadership for all who attend." With that in mind, Blair shared his insights about what it means to lead. And in politics, specifically, sometimes that journey comes with a touch of irony.
"Whatever position you're in, you start at your most popular, least capable and you end at your least popular, most capable," Blair said.
Jan Hoffer, of Algonquin, particularly loved the humor Blair brought to the conversation. She said he was inspiring in his openness and moving in his comments about the heart being central to leadership.
"You really don't know what to expect coming to these forums," Hoffer said. "I think a lot of people will leave feeling a real sense of community."