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ECC president shares ‘unplugged’ story in chamber series

Board member MC Kelly Brown sits next ElgCommunity College President Dr. David Sam who answers questions during ElgChamber luncheWednesday GrVictoriCasino

Board member and MC Kelly Brown sits next to Elgin Community College President Dr. David Sam who answers questions during a Elgin Chamber luncheon Wednesday at Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin. November 7, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 10, 2012 6:15AM

ELGIN — Elgin Community College President David Sam says he was sitting under a tree about five years ago in his hometown in Ghana, a he hadn’t been since he was 4 or 5 years old, when two things came to mind.

Watching little kids playing nearby, he saw himself about 40 years earlier. He realized that could have been him.

And as he spoke with several men who came and sat with him under the tree, trying to convince Sam that they had grown up together, it occurred to him they all were unemployed. They all passed their days sitting under that tree, not being very productive.

And he realized that also could have been him.

“I could have been one of them — but for education,” Sam said.

Sam shared his life story — and the importance of education throughout — and the leadership lessons he’s learned with about 40 people as the speaker in the Elgin Area Chamber of Commerce’s new “CEO Unplugged” series Wednesday at the Grand Victoria Casino.

The chamber started the series, sponsored by the casino, last month with Pat Hayes, chair of Fabric Images in Elgin, according to Elgin Area Chamber President Carol Gieske. And it plans to expand the series next year with four separate events, she said.

“We are excited to profile some of the CEOs of our community,” Gieske said.

“The intent is for business owners and individuals who are attending that luncheon to walk away with a piece of information that may be helpful to them as soon as they get back to their office that afternoon.”

Sam started at Elgin Community College on Feb. 12, 2007. That’s his late mother’s birthday, he said, so he knew “she would be blessing me,” he said.

And his time so far at the community college has been blessed, he said. Enrollment has grown 17 percent in the past four years, he noted.

But that time hasn’t been without its challenges, too, according to the community college president. The biggest was asking voters in Community College District 509 to approve a tax increase referendum vote in April 2009. It won approval by just 35 votes, he said.

“The board saw what was coming down the pike and did it, but it was a tough thing to go through,” he said.

That’s mostly because it was a tough thing to ask for, knowing the condition of the economy and its impact on district taxpayers at the time, he said.

Sam shared the most important leadership lesson he’s learned — “Honesty is so critical. If you are dishonest, it undermines everything you do” — as well as his baseball team loyalties with luncheon-goers Wednesday. For the record, his favorite baseball team is the Chicago Cubs because, he said, he went to a Cubs game within his first three days in the United States and “couldn’t help it.”

Susan Wolf, a front office manager at Hampton Inn Hotels, said her daughter went to Elgin Community College. What she took back to her office from Sam’s talk, she said, was “some of his points about being focused.”

That was one of the three qualities Sam had said make a good teacher: being prepared and being passionate so others believe in you and follow you. And a willingness to learn, he added.

“When you teach, you learn,” he said. “If you are willing to learn from students, it will make you a better teacher.”

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