Trustee ends 48 years serving ECC: 'It's not the buildings that matter. It's what happens inside.'

In the spring of 1975, Larkin High School teacher John Duffy was getting set to take his four children on a vacation for spring break when several people showed up at his house.

They included his former boss and good friend Chuck Medearis, who had become a dean at Elgin Community College. They asked him to run for the burgeoning college's board of trustees.

"I said 'no,'" Duffy recalled Monday. He told them he would be camping in Biloxi, Mississippi, the week of the election. If they wanted him to run, they would have to do the campaigning.

He returned to find himself the newest member of the college's board.

Tuesday night's board meeting capped a 48-year run - the longest of any community college trustee in Illinois.

"I was hooked," Duffy said.

"The top two words in John Duffy's vocabulary are an emphatic 'yes' and 'absolutely,'" ECC board Chair Jennifer Rakow said at a reception Monday honoring Duffy. She called him a "champion of students," saying his favorite day of the year was graduation day.

Duffy served three stints as chairman of the board. He also served with various state and national organizations dedicated to community college education.

John Duffy is seated, on the left side, in a 1978 photo of the Elgin Community College board of trustees. Courtesy of Elgin Community College

The college began in 1949, run by Elgin Area Unit District 46 in a single classroom at Elgin High School. When Duffy joined the board, it was an independent district with one building, plus an annex, on a 100-acre site west of McLean Boulevard.

Duffy was there for several construction campaigns. The campus has 14 buildings now, plus the Center for Emergency Services in Burlington and the Education and Work Center in Hanover Park. It also has a site in the Streamwood Village Hall.

But for Duffy, the students always came first.

"It's not the buildings that matter. It's what happens inside," Duffy said.

He also stressed the "community" in community college.

"We are the community's college, and lifelong learning is why we are here," Duffy said, saying the college has served people of all ages since its beginning.

"We improve students' lives through learning regardless of the age of the student," he said.

In 2008, Elgin Community College named a street on the campus after John Duffy. He is pictured with his wife, Anne. Courtesy of Elgin Community College

Those students included his wife, Anne, who studied at the college en route to getting her bachelor's degree in education, and all his children. Duffy himself took Astronomy 101 and a sociology course.

Why not Astronomy 102?

"Math," said Duffy, who taught English and Latin at Larkin, starting in 1962. "It was all math, and it scared the lights out of me."

Looking out for students made sitting through even the most tedious board meetings worthwhile, he said.

"This place saves students - the students need it," Duffy said.

Not that all meetings were boring. He recalled one where a trustee threw a cup of coffee at another board member.

That was not Duffy's style. "I tried my best always to help the board reach consensus," Duffy said.

Several hundred people attended Monday's reception. He stood at the door, greeting everyone. They included his former high school students, including one who traveled from California.

  John Duffy greeted every one of the hundreds who came to his retirement reception Monday at Elgin Community College. John Starks/

Jee Hang Lee - president and chief executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Community College Trustees - presented Duffy with a lifetime membership. "You can't be a board member for 48 years at the local level unless you have what we in the ACCT call a 'duty of care,'" Lee said.

Presidents and board members of several other Illinois and Indiana community colleges spoke about serving with Duffy on association boards and about his lobbying in Springfield and Washington to improve things for community colleges. The ECC Foundation announced the establishment of a scholarship in his name.

Duffy told the crowd it was "a little scary to think enough people had enough confidence in me to keep electing me." He was reelected nine times, the first two for 3-year terms.

Duffy, 88, said that when he ran in 2017, his wife told him he would have to acknowledge to people that he was old. He campaigned telling people about his excellent health - only to get diagnosed a few months later with esophageal cancer, then in 2019, with pancreatic cancer.

"God did not give me one more day on this Earth because I needed it. God gave me one more day on this Earth because somebody else must need me," he said of beating the cancers. But he felt it would be presumptuous to seek another term.

Asked if he had regrets about his time on the board, Duffy couldn't think of a specific thing.

"I'm happy. You always wonder if you could have done it better," he said. "I gave it my best shot."

Duffy’s 48 years at Elgin Community College

Some of the highlights at Elgin Community College during John Duffy’s time on the school’s board if trustees:

1975: John Duffy is elected. The district changes its name to Community College District 509.

1979: The Industrical Technologies building opens.

1983: Fountain Square campus in downtown Elgin opens.

1991-98: ECC adds the Applied Business Technolgoies building, Visual and Performing Arts Center, Business Conference Center and Instructional Center.

2002: The Industrial Training Center opens.

2004: Culinary Arts Center opens.

2005: Spartan Events Center opens.

2008: A road on campus is named Duffy Drive.

2010: Fountain Square closes.

2012: A new library and a new health and life sciences buildings open.

2014: The Education and Work Center in Hanover Park opens.

2016: The Center for Emergency Services opens in Burlington.

2023: John Duffy leaves board.


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