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Still a Great Ambassador for Penn State, and an Inspiration for All

by on March 27, 2018 5:00 AM


Houston, we have your next mayor. Better yet… Texas, we have your next governor.

More on that in a bit.

Last year I was honored to be elected to the Penn State Alumni Association’s Alumni Council — the governing body for the largest dues-paying alumni association of its kind worldwide – and we meet twice a year here in Happy Valley. Everyone on the council sits on a few committees and we get the wonderful opportunity to meet a number of other Penn State alumni who care deeply about Dear Old State. We also work with the supremely dedicated staff in the Hintz Family Alumni Center who make the whole enterprise run.

One of the many duties and benefits of serving on council is that I receive invitations to the Alumni Association’s special events and award ceremonies – the volunteer group awards, faculty/staff awards, groups of distinction and, most interestingly to me, the individual awards.

The Alumni Association gives out several individual awards on a semi-regular or annual basis. Some of the most well-known are the Alumni Fellow Award, which has been presented every year since 1973, and the Distinguished Alumni Award which was established by the Board of Trustees in 1951, and is considered the highest honor that Penn State bestows upon an outstanding alumna or alumnus. A more recently established award is the Alumni Achievement Award that recognizes young alumni – those who are 35 or younger – for their extraordinary professional accomplishments.

Last Friday at the State Theatre in downtown State College, the Alumni Association gave out its 2018 Alumni Achievement Awards. The criteria for the award are available online here. These awards show that Penn State alumni can succeed in exceptional fashion soon after graduation. No need to wait until you are 30 years into your career – get out and make a name for yourself right away!

The 10 2018 awardees are each unique in what they have accomplished in such a short time and it was interesting listening to their acceptance speeches. It was also a bit melancholy to think back to that first decade after graduation – what did you do for Blue today?

An attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance who fights for the rights and civil liberties of low-income individuals and their families. A Pennsylvania State Senator who represents the 37th District. The director of communications for Heineken USA. A director with BlackRock’s European private credit team who is a member of a global professional network called 100 Women in Finance. An entrepreneur in San Francisco running two thriving companies with no outside investment, whose Hispanic family history is the American bootstrap ideal.

These and others took the stage one by one, each feted and greeted by President Eric Barron, each in turn telling their story and being thankful for the honor bestowed on them. They were the kind of moments that make you proud to be associated with Penn State.

But it was the last honoree who I’ll remember the most.

A man who lives with his family in Houston. A family that underwent the sort of gut-wrenching experience that you never wish on anyone, a diagnosis of stage four pediatric cancer for their young daughter. And this was a man who had succeeded in ways most of us only dream of.

Devon Still was captain of the Penn State football team, an All-American, and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He graduated in 2011 and played in the NFL for six years as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals and Houston Texans. And when life took a turn that no one expected, they used that opportunity and his platform to find ways to give back by creating a foundation to provide grants to families to help cover non-medical bills, so they can devote their attention to supporting their child’s fight against cancer.

It is amazing and a testament to the spirit that beats within this man. But the pièce de résistance was his speech.

I’ve been honored (or tortured some might say) by having attended a lot of award ceremonies over the years -- not to mention conferences, meetings, and all manner of gatherings that require speeches. I can tell you that giving a good acceptance speech is an art. Humility, speaking from the heart, personal anecdotes, tugging at our heart strings, no ums, ahhs, likes or actually’s, no notes, short but not too short, long enough to engage and have us want more. These are the hallmarks of an individual who will make you want to follow them and conquer whatever is in your way.

This man delivered. I was sitting with a friend who has attended Penn State alumni awards for decades. When Still’s speech was over, my friend turned to me and said, “Top three all-time.” He was hedging only because he didn’t want to offend anyone. It could easily have been the best.

Still is a great ambassador for Penn State. It was an honor to be in the room with him, and if you have the opportunity to do anything you can to help him, you should. I encourage you to visit the Still Strong Foundation’s website.

Oh, and you know what? Houston, you can get another mayor. Texas, you can find a governor. People of the United States, I’ve found a man of intelligence, character and action. We’ve found our next president.


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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