Ukens embody Illini spirit

May 20, 2020

Gary Uken’s Illini Pride runs deep. He and his wife Janet are both two-time alumni of the University of Illinois. Gary graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering and in 1994 with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. Janet has a bachelor’s degree from the College of ACES and a master’s degree from the School of Social Work.

Growing up in rural Champaign County, Gary became familiar with the University at a young age. “But I thought of it as just a school,” says Gary. “It wasn’t until I became an alum that I realized the significance of attending one of the best engineering schools in the nation and feeling Illini Pride.”

When Gary came to Illinois, he lived at FarmHouse Fraternity. He met Janet in the basement of Noyes Lab during Chemistry 101. They married shortly after graduation and have two boys.  Ethan graduated from the U of I in May 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and Alex is a current mechanical engineering student. Illini Pride is something the Ukens instilled in their boys from a young age.

While a student, Gary worked two summers at the USDA agricultural engineering research farm with Dr. Hummel, while also helping on the family farm. Following graduation, Gary took a position with the Illinois EPA while pursuing his master’s degree at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Once he obtained his master’s degree, he began working for FMC Corporation, where he worked on designing orchard sprayers and pea combines. 

After a short time with FMC, Gary accepted a position with Caterpillar, where he continues to work. Gary began with Caterpillar helping design the next generation Challenger tractor, and his career journey has taken him to his current position as the Director of Engineering in the Earthmoving Division. In this position he most enjoys his role as the executive sponsor for the Society of Women Engineers, where he can help support and encourage women in their roles with the company. He also has a seat on the Caterpillar Senior Technology Leadership Forum, where he can impact Caterpillar’s direction of technology at a corporate level.

Because his children are current and former Illinois students, Gary can combine his enjoyment of family with his love of the University. The Ukens hold season tickets for both football and basketball and enjoy combining cheering for the Illini with visiting their boys on campus. Gary feels having Illini Pride can positively impact a student’s on-campus experience as well as their career post-graduation. To understand Illini Pride, he points people to a speech by Athletic Director Josh Whitman. You can find the video here.

Gary encourages current students to maximize the value of their degree. “Build your resume with situational experiences such as internships and extracurricular activities and establish your own feelings of Illini Pride. The University of Illinois is a special place, so be proud of what you are accomplishing while on campus, and carry that Illini Pride with you on into your future endeavors. As an Illini, there is no better feeling than wearing the orange and blue and hearing a fellow Illini shout I-L-L ….!”

In 2019, the Ukens established the Gary and Janet Uken Scholarship in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Illinois, and we are grateful for their continued encouragement and support of our students.

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