By Rebecca Renshaw
Thomas Edison once quipped, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” Fortunately for SIU, 1971 alumnus Dave Baer never missed an opportunity to work.
In fact, he started early. Whether he was cutting other people’s grass or shining shoes, Baer closely followed his mother’s advice as she instilled a work ethic in him that few others could emulate.
Baer’s strong work ethic enabled him to come to SIU in the mid-1960s fully equipped to pay his own way. Upon leaving the military, he arrived on campus not certain which direction he wanted his career to take. He recalls walking by a building with a huge banner strung across the front welcoming students to learn more about what is now known as the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. Curious, he stepped inside and met the dean, who helped pave the way for his entrance into the brand-new program.
“It was a great fit,” Baer says. “I already had many friends who were in law enforcement – and, coming fresh out of the military, it just felt comfortable.”
While at SIU, Baer met the love of his life, Cheryl, at the university’s bowling alley. Together, they shared more than 37 years of marriage – and also an abiding connection to the university that brought them together.
As one of the first graduates from SIU’s Administration of Justice program, Baer went on to a fulfilling 37-year career with Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, as its chief of police. His memorable achievements include working with the FBI to provide valuable information on a 9/11 attack collaborator who was later sentenced to 15 years in federal prison.
Perhaps Baer’s most notable achievement was his work with several state legislators to help get a law passed for private Illinois universities to create their own police departments, making Bradley the first private Illinois university to do so. Baer also served as a president of the Illinois Campus Law Enforcement Administrators and as the secretary for the Peoria County Association of Chiefs of Police. He is also a lifelong member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Beta Eta Chapter, at SIU.
After the passing of his wife and his mother, Baer retired from his position with Bradley. With time to reflect on his life and what is most important to him, he remembered the positive influence SIU had upon his life. He and Cheryl had always spoken of starting a scholarship fund but had never gotten around to doing so.
Baer realized the time was right.
“While my wife and I both received an outstanding education at SIU, my mother – who was one of the brightest women with an intelligent mind – never had the opportunity to go to college, he says. “So I wanted to help enable a young person to have that chance. My mother raised me to work hard and to give back to others. That’s why I felt so strongly about including her name in the $25,000 scholarship.”
Its full title is the David A. Baer, Cheryl A. Walker Baer and Naomi D. Baer Endowed Scholarship. The scholarship supports students in the criminal justice and criminology program.
The SIU Foundation invited Baer to visit the campus and see firsthand the impact of his efforts. He met with Heather Duban and Beryl Span, the two recipients of this first-ever scholarship for the program.
Duban, a sophomore from Robinson, Illinois, hopes to graduate from SIU in three years with dual majors in psychology and criminal justice. She plans to go to graduate school and eventually do research in criminology as a career. She says the scholarship helps her stay on track.
“With the likelihood of the state being unable to assist me with a grant, Dave’s gift means that I can focus more on schoolwork than worry about finding the money to attend school,” Duban says. “It’s people like Mr. Baer who make me want to give back to my school when I am able to do so.”
Span, a junior from south Chicago, is majoring in criminal justice and minoring in sociology.
“When I received an email from my professor telling me I won the scholarship, I was so excited and happy,” says Span, who hopes to go into police work and ultimately become an FBI agent. “This scholarship has given me an opportunity to continue my higher education. If it wasn’t for this scholarship, I would not have had enough money to attend SIU.”
As a first-generation college student, Span takes her study seriously. She has a 3.8 GPA and also works on campus. She appreciates having the opportunity to meet with her scholarship benefactor during his visit to campus.
“I liked it when he said you have to have a good sense of humor about this type of work,” she says. “It’s serious, but it helps if you can lighten the mood every once in a while.”
Baer has plans to establish three more endowed scholarships in the near future. One scholarship will go to the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice and the other two will go to the Department of Sociology in honor of Baer’s wife.