Alumnus' drive to engage in public service fueled by experience

November 29, 2017

John AtkinsonLisle, Illinois ~ Benedictine alumnus John Atkinson, C84, Political Science, has ridden an incredible wave of success as a managing partner for global insurance broker Willis Towers Watson, but no matter how high he climbs the corporate ladder, he never loses sight of where he came from.

His early experiences are a major reason why he remains a staunch advocate for social justice, such as the advancement of universal health care and making higher education more accessible to low-income students.

“The values that were instilled in me as a child by my family were reinforced and sustained at Benedictine and are the same values that keep me grounded in activism and working for justice and change,” Atkinson said. “Today more than ever, those values are under attack and I have been inspired by our church and Pope Francis’ engagement and advocacy of important issues of justice, health care, immigration and peace.”

Atkinson was not surrounded by wealth growing up. His mother had many health issues and the family struggled at times to make ends meet.

“We did not have a lot of money, but we had a close family and parents that always tried to help others who were less fortunate than ourselves,” Atkinson said. “At one point, we had to sell our house and move into an apartment because my dad wanted to make sure all the bills were paid. That experience gave me the bug for public service that has yet to completely work its way out.”

While Atkinson’s family didn’t have much money for his college education, he was able to attend Benedictine for free, thanks to his mother, then a secretary in the Office of Financial Aid, and a tuition remission program for the children of employees.

“I was able to attend BenU with full tuition paid by that program,” he said. “Otherwise, I am not sure how I would have been able to pay for school.”

After hearing Sen. Edward Kennedy’s vision of providing health care for all Americans, he decided to volunteer on Kennedy’s presidential campaign shortly before enrolling at Benedictine. He then continued working as a staff member and organizer for several other political campaigns while he was a student.

At Benedictine, Atkinson’s interests in political science continued to flourish as he learned the many ways in which public service could become a force for good.

“Benedictine helped to sustain the values I was brought up with— to care about others, welcome the stranger and the call to community action,” he said. “All of that converged to help me think about how I could help the broader community.”

Shortly after graduation, he married his wife, Bonnie, and began looking for a job that would help support a family. He worked his way up to become managing partner and principal of one of the nation’s top 100 privately held insurance brokerage firms and then led the sale, integration and merger of his firm into HRH and later the Willis Group in 2006.

Today, he is part of the leadership team at Willis Towers Watson, leading groups that focus on helping health care providers better engage their workforce, improve quality and manage risk. He also helps the organization to give back to the community through various nonprofit, community and civic engagement efforts.

“In my volunteer work, it’s about moving the needle in a positive direction for people,” Atkinson said.

Outside of work, he is director emeritus of One Million Degrees, which helps low-income students with high potential to succeed in college and life. He is also director of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, which supports comprehensive immigration reform; director of the Kennedy Forum, which advocates for mental health parity and improved access for addiction and recovery services; and is a board member of Cradles to Crayons, which provides clothing, school supplies, toys and other essentials to disadvantaged children.

In 2008, he joined President Barack Obama’s campaign as a volunteer and later became part of his National Finance Committee.

“I was inspired by his vision for a more just America, and his passion for universal health care which ultimately resulted in the passage of the Affordable Care Act,” Atkinson said.

He also once considered a bid for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, but ultimately chose not to run due to redistricting.

“Since my partners and I sold our business to Willis, I have had the flexibility to become more active in public affairs and think about different ways to give back,” he added. “I looked at perhaps running for public office and still may do that if I think I can make a difference.”

While volunteering for Catholic Charities, he befriended Jim Ryan, C68, former Illinois Attorney General and founder of Benedictine’s Center for Civic Leadership (CCL). He has since become a major supporter of the CCL and is currently one of its advisory board members. He is also a member of the University’s President’s Planning Advisory Committee and received the Visionary Award from Benedictine’s Office of Alumni Relations in 2015. The award honors alumni who have gone out into the world, affected change and transformed their industries for the better.

Reflecting on the current political climate, Atkinson said he noticed one thing that’s still missing that can make a real impact on the future of our democracy—the voice of the youth generation.

“I want young people to know that public service and politics today are more important than ever. We live in a country that at its core is a kind and generous nation, but we need our young leaders— this next generation—to answer the call.”

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Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois, just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois, and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls more than 5,000 students in 59 undergraduate and 23 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the seventh consecutive year in 2017. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (hlcommission.org). For more information, contact (630) 829-6300, admissions@ben.edu or visit ben.edu.

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