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Joe Rank stands with son Jay Rank during a tour of D.C. military memorials
Joe Rank, left, stands with his son Jay Rank at the WWII Memorial. Rank, a Vietnam War Veteran, recently returned from an Honor Flight visit to Washington, D.C.

How Joe Rank became a Chez Center guide


By the fall of 1965, the conflict between North and South Vietnam had escalated, as had the United States’ military involvement. With the draft looming, Urbana teenager Joe Rank, newly enrolled at the University of Illinois, joined the Naval ROTC unit at the advice of one of his fraternity brothers a year after reserve officer training was no longer compulsory.

After four years as an undergraduate student majoring in advertising, Rank was deployed to Vietnam, where his responsibilities included pinging enemy submarines and managing gunners aboard the destroyer USS Lyman K. Swenson and the cruiser USS England.

Following his three-year tour, Rank returned to the university and embarked on several career journeys. He taught new cohorts of reserve officers, helmed a $20 million Navy advertising campaign, and developed two decades of relationships at the University of Illinois Alumni Association.

“If anybody 55 years ago said ‘You’re going to make a career of the Navy,’ I would’ve told them they were absolutely crazy,” Rank said. “All of life’s twists and turns, I couldn't have planned it.”

The retired Rank, now 76, is helping sustain a campus resource he could’ve used as a military Veteran who returned for further education: The Chez Veterans Center.

“Joe is a bridge between the university’s deep history in the Veteran community and what the future can be,” said Chez Director of Operations Andy Bender. “Joe has the passion for this work, being able to take the things we need and then bringing in the support to do it.”

“They've got a clear mission now to serve all veterans,” Rank said of the Chez Center. “Veterans bring diversity to the campus.”

Rank, who lives in Urbana with his wife Pam, has strong ties with his identities as an Illinois alumnus and Veteran. He recently returned from an Honor Flight, a no-cost, full-day visit to military memorials in Washington, D.C., with 96 other Vietnam Veterans and three from the Korean War.

Witnessing historic monuments such as the Arlington National Cemetery and feeling warm receptions at every point led to an unforgettable experience. At the Vietnam Memorial Wall, Rank made a charcoal rubbing of the etched name of Marine Corps 2nd Lt. David Skibbe, a fellow Illinois Naval ROTC officer who died during a mission in 1970.

“He was just an outstanding leader,” Rank said. “His death brought the war close to home for me.”

Joe Rank does a charcoal rubbing of his classmate Lt. David Skibbe's name on the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

Rank has stayed in the University of Illinois orbit since he was a kid. His mother worked in the Dean’s Office of the College of Commerce, now the Gies College of Business. Many of his friends coming up through Urbana High School were children of professors.

When he returned from Vietnam, Rank became an instructor for Illinois ROTC classes, earning the title of assistant professor of Naval Science while obtaining his master’s degree in advertising.

Three years of 18-hour days in Vietnam made the daily study grind feel easy.

“I was at the library at 8 o'clock in the morning, got my work done by 4 p.m.,” Rank said. “I had that discipline—I got one B in graduate school.”

Rank soon went back to sea, when the Navy did something that “didn’t make much sense” to him at the time: Brought Rank in as director of National Advertising for Navy recruiting.

During his tenure, the Navy unveiled the “It’s Not a Job, It’s an Adventure” advertising slogan that rippled across national airwaves in the early 1980s. The campaign even inspired an infamous sketch from “Saturday Night Live.”

“You know you had a successful campaign when it was parodied on SNL,” Rank said.

After 20 years of active-duty service, Rank faced the test of reintegrating into civilian life and passed with flying colors. The mission of the Chez Center has connected with him from the start.

While serving as vice president of membership and marketing at the Alumni Association, he was brought into an ad hoc committee to address the vision of Chez, then known as the Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education.

“The intent was it would be much like (Disability Resources and Educational Services) was for the World War II Vets. It would accommodate severely, profoundly injured military veterans who wanted to come back to college.”

The technology of war has changed and casualties have decreased. As that cohort of seriously injured Veterans of college age dried up, the question was how to transform the center’s mission.

Like DRES, Chez has morphed its service to apply to a wider range of students and staff. On the advisory committee, the word “wounded” was eliminated from the title, as Chez became a one-stop shop for campus folks with military connections.

“Originally, it was a welcoming cocoon for people to recreate that military atmosphere and camaraderie. But in reality, the whole idea is to get people comfortable enough with the university and the civilian environment and push them out, get them involved in their major,” Rank said.

“The idea is not to segregate them into a pseudo military unit, but get them comfortable with what they're going to experience in civilian life.”

Rank’s support of the Chez Center is multifaceted, as both a donor and member of its advisory board.

“He’s a great sounding board for me,” Bender said. “He’s been a part of this project since the very beginning.”

“He’s a great supporter of us, of the Veterans, and of the university at large.”

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