How does one's life unfold? How much do you choose, and how much are you chosen for? J.D. Ross '67 wonders.
In 2006, newly retired as president of Joliet Junior College in Illinois, Ross had told his wife that he would be interested in working for a community-based, grassroots organization sometime, after he'd had a chance to enjoy retirement for at least six months, maybe even a year. While exercising at the gym, however, a simple conversation would lead him to his next calling.
Joliet's Will-Grundy Medical Clinic, a free clinic for the poor and uninsured, was looking for a new executive director. "You know, WGMC's director is retiring," said friend Vincent Benigni, walking on the treadmill beside Ross.
"I don't have any medical background-at all," Ross pointed out.
"That's not what they're looking for," Benigni said. The clinic's board wanted a leader, someone passionate about serving others. And they knew J.D. Ross was both.
As WGMC's executive director since 2006, Ross still finds the chain of events bringing him to this position at the very least ironic. He had envisioned taking some well-deserved time off, eventually working with youth or in workforce development, "certainly not a medical clinic. If the job had been posted, I would not have applied."
Directing the work of a free medical clinic, however, has proved anything but a stretch for Ross, who has served others his entire life, the roots of which were firmly planted in his childhood. Although his family was poor, his mother was an active "community servant," according to the East Moline, Ill., native. "I grew up poor but didn't know it. And despite our poverty, our own need, my mother was moved to serve others."
Still, coming of age in the turbulent '60s, "I was the most nondescript person that ever lived," Ross says. After graduating from high school, he attended community college while working almost fulltime. When it came time to transfer to a four-year school, the prospect seemed financially impossible. The flood of 1965 had hit, and his family had to move out of their house in "Watertown," the aptly nicknamed low-income neighborhood. Ross was ready to drop out of school and take on even more work to help out, figuring he'd return to his studies later. Despite the family's need, his mother cautioned him against this decision, fearing once he left school, he might never go back.
So on a snowy afternoon in the middle of the academic term, not knowing whether he was on a fool's errand, Ross walked into the Admissions Office at St. Ambrose College. By the time he left, Agnes "Mother" Renner had arranged financial aid, a loan and a class schedule. "It was serendipitous," Ross says.
At the same time, several community programs started helping his family prepare to move back into their flood-damaged home. "It was then that I started thinking of the responsibility to give back." These experiences would mark Ross with a strong value for education and a lifetime commitment of service to the community.
Upon graduation from St. Ambrose, Ross worked as a teacher and director of a program for high school dropouts, developing a decided interest in alternative education. "I became an assistant principal and thought the course of my life was charted for me here in my hometown," he says. Already a big accomplishment for a self-professed "nondescript" African-American boy from East Moline. But an old Rock Island friend who had relocated to Joliet told him about a position at the community college there.
While the position to direct educational services for adult correctional centers matched Ross' interest and experience in alternative education, at first he didn't even consider asking his family to relocate. "I said ‘no, thank you,'" he relates. But the seed was planted. He would apply and be chosen for the position, a decision that led to a 32-year career at Joliet Community College, culminating in his selection as its first African-American president. Still honoring the commitment made as a 20-year-old, Ross continued his community work, serving on countless boards and taskforces, and as a result received numerous awards and distinctions along the way. Service has been such a hallmark of his life that, while he was still president, the Joliet Junior College Board of Trustees established in his name the college's most prestigious honor: the J.D. Ross Extraordinary Service Award.
Ross continues to keep his now decades' old commitment as he leads the Will-Grundy Medical Clinic in serving approximately 7,000 patients each year. With the generous volunteer service of area doctors, nurses, technicians, dentists and hygienists, the clinic provides comprehensive on-site medical care as well as referrals to volunteer specialists.
A unique one-on-one diabetic education program is a cornerstone of clinic services. Ross sees many patients who arrive with medical conditions like diabetes that have been exacerbated by the lack of proper medical attention. From a humanistic viewpoint, the suffering, shortened lifespan and severely compromised quality of life for people living with treatable ailments is unconscionable, he says.
And although he didn't initially choose this work, it has taken hold of him and opened his eyes. "Most of us grumble about co-pays and deductibles, yet we wake up every day with access to medical care and our own physician," Ross says. "This is a very different country for those who don't have insurance. At a very human level, that's a shame."
So, perhaps it is both: part choosing one's path, part being chosen. How else could the man who wryly jokes that his high school yearbook prediction could have been "most likely to exist" be exactly what we've been looking for-the humble servant-leader in a world of sore need.
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