The Filler effect
How one alumnus inspired a legacy of Illinois graduates who have embraced the commitment to paying it forward.
Story by
Abigail Bobrow
Motion design by
Katie Miller

Ron Filler (LAS ’70) is from Union City, Tennessee, a small town about a hundred miles north of Memphis, where, as he likes to tell it, “the driving age and the drinking age was about five foot two.”

It’s been decades since Ron lived there, but the lessons he learned from his close-knit family of five have traveled with him. He was taught the value of hard work by his parents—from a young age, he and his two older brothers helped out at Dotty’s Shop, the family’s clothing store. Their parents instilled in them the importance of serving others, and of making people feel special.

Ron has never lost that commitment, and on a chilly January evening earlier this year, at one of his semi-annual dinners, his attention was focused on making Illinois students feel special. Donned in a crisp black suit and a bright orange tie, he stood in the lobby of the I Hotel and eagerly greeted the newest recipients of the scholarship he established in 2002.

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“On paper, Ron and I have nothing in common,” Jacques Anderson (LAS ’11) recalled during a recent phone call from her home in New York City. “When we first met, we should have been strangers in the street.”

Raised in East St. Louis by a single mother who was a police officer, Jacques was one of the first recipients of a Filler Scholarship. Yet, she is quick to emphasize that while she appreciated the scholarship, it was his willingness to mentor her­—especially through some important decisions­—that really changed her life. He now regards her as his “second daughter” and beamed alongside Jacques’s parents at her graduation from Harvard Law School in 2014.

Jacques Anderson stands next to Ron Filler at her graduation from Harvard Law School in 2014. Photo courtesy of Jacques Anderson

“I think Ron, specifically, showed me how you can really make a difference in someone’s life by not only giving money, but giving time and incorporating people into your life,” she said. She has carried that kindness forward creating her own scholarships and mentoring programs everywhere she’s lived: East St. Louis, Cambridge, and New York City.

Ron, who describes himself as “high-energy,” has been willing to build that connection with every one of the more than one hundred students who have been his scholarship recipients in six areas at Illinois: the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, Jewish studies, political science, adaptive sports, and non-revenue generating sports (golf, in particular).

Ron meets with students at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center earlier this year. More than anything, his favorite part about the scholarship he started is getting the chance to mentor students.

He’s a busy man who easily receives three hundred emails a day and doesn’t go to bed without answering every one of them.

As always, he credits his parents for who he is.

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Jeanette and Leon Filler, first-generation Americans of Russian-Ukrainian descent, grew up in the St. Louis area during the Depression. Their circumstances improved when the married couple relocated to Union City, where Ronnie, as he was known then, and his brothers, grew up.

“Union City got its first look at a television when Mr. Filler brought it home in the trunk of his car from St. Louis,” recalled next-door neighbor Robert Young in a phone call shortly before he passed away in February this year. “Of course, you couldn’t see much. It was all snow,” Dr. Young said laughing. He and Ron had remained close since they were children living on the 600 block of North First Street, and the Filler family considered Robert their fourth son.

The Filler family was well-known throughout their small community as generous and thoughtful, but also driven. Mr. Filler and the boys were all avid sports fans, and the Fillers expected each of their boys to succeed and attend college.

Images from the 1966 Union City High School yearbook. Photos courtesy of Union City High School

After Ron graduated in 1966, as his class’ salutatorian, he headed for Illinois. Although he had a difficult transition to the academic demands of college life his freshman year, he found his way and chose to major in political science.

He went on to pursue law at George Washington University, and after earning his degree, he practiced in Chicago where he raised his two children, Lindsay and Stephen, instilling in them the same lessons he was taught as a boy.

“In the Jewish religion, there is a tradition of charity called tzedakah, and you’re supposed to remain anonymous,” said Ron’s daughter Lindsay Filler. “From what my father has told me, my grandfather truly personified tzedakah—he gave anonymously and effortlessly and just wanted to help others as much as he could.”

Like his father, Ron honors the tradition of tzedakah as well. “It’s always been part of my experience and my life,” Lindsay reflected. “I’ve always watched people older than me embody this tradition. It was never told to me that I had to be this way, but just in watching others, the example was set. It seemed to be part of the Filler DNA.”

True to form, each of Ron’s immediate family have found ways to serve their communities. Lindsay, Ron’s daughter, is now a social worker on Staten Island and her brother, Stephen, supports two scholarships at his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. Ron’s wife, Paula, who is from the New York-New Jersey area, has also served on numerous charitable boards and strongly supports the various Filler contributions to Illinois.

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Eventually, Ron landed in New York City, and he has taught at New York Law School for the past twelve years. Through teaching, he has found himself passing along the lessons of gratitude and hard work he learned from his parents. He places great importance on mentoring his students and does everything he can to enable his students’ success.

In the spirit of giving back, Ron encourages his law students to recruit from and support their alma mater in recognition of the ways their education prepared them for their careers—just like he does for Illinois. Ron is thankful for the foundation Illinois provided him, and has long been committed to supporting students, programs, and campus infrastructure.

Ron greets a scholarship recipient at the January dinner at the I Hotel.

Nicole Evans (AHS ’17, ’18) was a Filler Scholar and star softball player for Illinois. She was asked to speak at the 2018 University of Illinois Foundation Annual Meeting, and at the end of her remarks, Athletic Director Josh Whitman told the audience about how, while on the road, she organized her team to perform community service in each city they traveled to for games. He said, “I know that legacy will continue long after Nicole is gone. She is an incredible ambassador not just for this athletic program, but for the entire university.”

Ron was in the audience that day and was moved to tears by Nicole’s remarks and proud of the many ways she has woven service to the community into her life.

“Ron Filler started as a generous, beacon of philanthropy when I met him my senior year of my undergrad. In the past three years, however,” Nicole said, “he has transformed into an invaluable mentor and a true part of my family.”

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The spirit of service is, by its nature, not a solitary endeavor. It is born of the desire to share kindness and connection, strengthen our communities, and highlight our shared humanity. For Ron, it began at home and in Dotty’s Shop, waiting on the women of Union City, ultimately winding its way to a chilly January evening years later, where that spirit could be found in every smile and handshake he extended as he welcomed the newest Filler Scholars.

To date, more than one hundred Illinois students have received support from Ron. As they find their footing and launch their careers, he is cheering them on, celebrating their hard work, and watching them find their own ways to pay kindness forward. And, like the “butterfly effect,” he will be witness to the exponential ways these acts of kindness change the world.

Ron chats with students at his January dinner.