NIU Is Where the Heart Is
For more than four decades, Northern Illinois University has influenced the lives of John and Anne Siepka Landgraf.
It was not only the backdrop for the educational foundation that set the stage for long, impactful careers. It is a place full of memories, the place where a friendship evolved into marriage. And it is where their service and commitment pays it forward for current students.
Anne, ’73, knew she wanted to teach. After attending a summer program at NIU between her junior and senior years in high school, she was sold.
“That sealed the deal,” she says. “This is where I wanted to be.”
John, ’74, M.S. ’75, who at one time wanted to be a doctor, embraced his love of science and majored in biology.
“College is like a renaissance,” he says. “I learned so much.”
He credits his professors with fueling his interest in science and imparting knowledge that he used during his professional career at Abbott Laboratories.
“Dr. Starzak, Dr. Lynch, Dr. Grosslags, and Dr. Zar were all fantastic professors,” he says. “They made learning fun. I used so much of what they taught me at Abbott over the years.”
Anne majored in history and minored in biology – a move that would prove beneficial later in life.
“I always loved history,” she says. “The best advice I ever received from the education department was to get a strong minor since history teachers are a dime a dozen.”
Her science background helped her land her first teaching job at St. Joseph School in East Aurora and her third position in Libertyville. She was fortunate to obtain employment following John’s moves in his career.
“I applied to be a substitute teacher and they told me that they needed a science teacher,” Anne says. “I was hired on the spot and went home with textbooks.”
Aside from classes, their worlds revolved around hanging out with friends, playing cards, campus activities, and the residence halls where they lived. Anne lived in Douglas Hall and John lived in Grant North.
Anne fondly remembers activities at the student union, some of which she planned as a member of the university center activity board. John remembers watching foreign films with subtitles on Saturday nights in the Reavis lecture hall and attending football games.
“We weren’t winning back then,” he adds.
While he admits to not being “a big sports guy,” John did learn how to play handball. Initially it was to meet his physical education requirement, but he went on to play handball for the next five years.
John and Anne didn’t connect right away – in fact, it took three years. John was a friend of Anne’s brother Rick, who also lived in Grant North. The two would see each other in passing, but it wasn’t until Anne returned to NIU after graduation to take an earth science class that sparks flew. The two started dating in October, were engaged in January, and married in July.
“Everything happened in nine months,” Anne chuckles.
Forty-two years, three children, and six grandchildren later, the union can best be described as the perfect combination of right brain and left brain.
“Anne is the writer,” John says. “I’m the science, math, and finance guy.”
After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from NIU, John began work at Inolex Corporation. After two years he joined Abbott Laboratories.
Meanwhile, Anne embarked on a career in the classroom, teaching at three schools and serving as a junior high substitute teacher for fifteen years.
“I taught both history and science at my first two positions,” Anne says.
John often assisted with the science projects Anne used in the classroom, such as doing throat cultures, swabbing objects and hands to look at bacteria, and looking at slides using a microscope.
“We called it science in a box,” John says.
Anne eased back on teaching to devote more time to family, and John retired from Abbott in 2015, after thirty-eight years with the Fortune 500 company. John retired as executive vice president and ran Abbott’s global nutritional division, the largest business at the company. The same year, he received distinguished alumni awards from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the NIU Alumni Association.
The duo haven’t slowed down, devoting their time to family, traveling, and working on projects that interest them. Their commitment to philanthropy is deeply rooted in their childhoods in modest blue-collar neighborhoods.
“I was brought up with the expectation that if you were blessed, you gave back,” John says.
Their shared philosophy, together with the value they place on education, has served as a compass for their efforts.
“We focus our efforts on education and medical science,” Anne says.
John has served on the NIU Foundation Board and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean’s Advisory Council, in addition to making time to meet with students and present to classes. He was instrumental in developing a relationship between NIU and Abbott, which employs about 500 NIU alumni.
The couple established an endowed fund to support student engagement in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. This endowment was the cornerstone for the Student Engagement Fund, a collaborative project between the college and the Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning.
John served as a member of the Independent Takata Corporation Quality Assurance Panel, reviewing and assessing policies, practices, procedures, structure, and personnel of the Takata Corporation to ensure the quality and safety of the company’s airbags. The airbags are the target of the largest recall in U.S. history, affecting an estimated 32 million vehicles.
“I’ve traveled to Japan, Mexico, and the United States to see facilities and provide recommendations,” John says, adding that only a few members of the panel have a scientific background. The panel’s report was published in February. John has stayed on to help Takata with the implementation of the panel’s recommendations.
Anne served on the school board for Community High School District 128 for a decade. It was in that role that she experienced the power of philanthropy. Tax dollars can only go so far, and there was interest in how to support learning experiences and instructional needs that don’t always make it into a budget.
“People want to donate directly to a local school,” Anne recalls. “We established the District 128 Foundation for Learning in 2006 to fill that need.”
The foundation served as a catalyst for alumni, community members, and interested companies to identify and fund myriad projects.
“A lot of the projects were technology-based, but some of our funded opportunities involved getting students to learn collaboratively,” Anne explains.
Anne went on to serve on the foundation’s board for six years. It has awarded more than $200,000 in grants since inception to support teachers and their instructional needs.
“It was impressive to see the impact the dollars made,” Anne says.
John has his own pet projects, serving on the boards of the Northeast Illinois Council – Boy Scouts of America and the Mailisita Foundation and Education Center, which serves the educational needs of the orphan population in Tanzania.
Travel is a love of the Landgrafs – and a bit of a challenge. John’s work at Abbott took him around the world, visiting more than fifty countries.
“We’re trying to find countries that John hasn’t been to,” Anne says, chuckling.
“The only continent I haven’t visited is Antarctica – and I am working to convince Anne to come with me on a trip in 2017,” John says. “As a businessman, you see a lot of sites, but you don’t have the opportunity to enjoy it. I’m looking forward to going back to places I’ve been previously.”
Family has remained a top priority, and the couple often travels with their children and grandchildren.
“The excursions are called ‘Dad-Pays’ vacations,” John says. “We set a date and location. Then it comes down to who is available to travel.”
“Each of the kids are expected to plan the trip’s activities,” Anne adds. The arrangement, which John learned about from another executive two decades ago, has led to trips to Disney World, cruising the Mediterranean and Baltic seas, enjoying the rich history of San Antonio, and recently enjoying the splendor and beauty of Alaska.
“It’s a tradition we are committed to continuing,” Anne says. “We want to show our grandchildren more of the United States and the rest of the world.”
“Curiosity about the world has been passed on from us to our kids and now our grandchildren,” John says. “We are blessed.”