KOKOMO, Ind. — Kokomo native Robert E. Knowling Jr., who rose from an environment of poverty to lead Fortune 500 companies, will receive an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Indiana University.
IU President Michael A. McRobbie will confer the degree during the Indiana University Kokomo Commencement Ceremony on Tuesday, May 8.
“A champion for equality and social justice, Knowling is a shining example of what a person can accomplish, no matter where he or she starts in life,” said Chancellor Susan Sciame-Giesecke, who nominated him for the honor. “As Hoosiers, we can certainly all take pride in his successes, not only in the corporate world, but as a person who has overcome racism, bigotry and poverty, and has helped to lay a foundation for those who follow after him.”
Knowling, who lives in Denver with his wife, Angela, hopes to inspire the Class of 2018 with his story.
“Quite frankly, I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “When I was graduating from college, I was impressed with the people who got honorary degrees. You wonder if you’ll ever be in a position to be worthy of something like this. If there’s a kid there who, like most of us at that age, doesn’t have it figured out, and sees something in my life to emulate, that’s great.”
Knowling currently is chairman of Eagles Landing Partners, a strategic management consulting company. The privately held company focuses on enabling executives to embrace and lead transformational organizational change.
He’s had a long business career, starting with his first job at Indiana Bell, in 1977. He moved up the career ladder at Indiana Bell, and continued his ascent after it merged with Ameritech. He was appointed vice president of network operations for Ameritech in 1994, and later was appointed to that position with US West. He became that company’s executive vice president of operations and technologies. Later, he led Covad Communications through rapid growth and initial public offering as its CEO, as it became the largest and most recognizable brand in the high-speed Internet access industry.
Knowling also served as CEO of the New York City Leadership Academy, a non-profit leadership academy founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
He never could have imagined his future success, growing up in Kokomo as one of 13 children.
“My original goal was to be the first one in our family to get through school,” he said, adding that he considered leaving high school to work and support the family, but his mother told him no, she was tired of losing her kids.
“I didn’t have it figured out,” Knowling said. “The dream just got a little bigger every step of the way. I say a prayer and thank God every day for what my life has turned into. I hope I’ve represented a good life to those who have been around me and know me.”
In his 2011 book, You Can Get There From Here: My Journey from Struggle to Success, he detailed stories of moving between his parents’ homes and his grandparents’ farm, and his drive to work, so he could contribute to his family’s finances.
The Kokomo YMCA filled a crucial void in his life, teaching him character, along with swimming and sports. Athletic success at Maconaquah High School gave him the opportunity to earn a degree in theology at Wabash College, where he played football and basketball.
Knowling looks forward to returning to Kokomo, and sharing what he’s learned with IU Kokomo’s graduates.
“Every step, you see the world’s a little bigger, and your perspective gets a little more enriching along each step of the journey, from graduating, to your first job, to your first promotion,” he said.
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.