2012-13 Marked the 10th Anniversary of the club. To enhance growth and reward those who worked hard for the club, the Alumni Association inducted the first group into the Hall Of Fame.
1. Brad “Box” Burns ’03
2. Ilija Veljkovic ’07
by Graig Norden ’07
One of the hardest things a college student faces is surrendering many of the comforts of home. Though this can be hard initially, it ultimately provides the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life, often with cultural, linguistic and socioeconomic differences that provide a stark contrast to the relative homogeny that most of us leave behind.
For me, this process led me to a brilliant, witty young man from Serbia named Ilija Veljkovic ’07. And one of the toughest challenges any of us will ever face is the loss of a dear friend – something Ilija also taught me when he passed away in August 2009.
Ethnic tensions within Yugoslavia erupted in 1991, in what would become the deadliest conflict in Europe since World War II. The war was characterized by bitter fighting, indiscriminate shelling of cities and towns, ethnic cleansing and systematic mass rape. Needless to say, this had a profound impact on Ilija’s childhood. But for all that had gone wrong in his part of the world, Ilija came to embody all that was right. Coming from a small village, Ilija often said that the chaos that provided a backdrop to his childhood cultivated an appreciable sense of brotherhood amongst his neighbors. Thus, there’s a significant correlation between Ilija’s childhood experiences and his ability to develop friendships in America. He approached his friendships with an uncommon amount of generosity, affection and hospitality – and, while it might be clichéd to say that someone would give the shirt off his back for others, that saying represents exactly what made Ilija such a wonderful friend and an even better person. Anyone who had the slightest contact with him can attest to that.
Most undergraduates have to make a choice between an outstanding social life and an excellent academic career. Not Ilija. He had the ability to stay out all night on upper King Street and then wake up early, finalize his preparation for an exam and ace it – evidence of both his remarkable intellect and his immense gratitude for the opportunity to live in America. As a fellow economics major, I witnessed firsthand Ilija’s ability to grasp complex theories and models in a foreign language faster than most others could in their native tongue. Also a psychology major, Ilija even had work cited in published research. In addition, one could easily observe that the typical student-teacher relationship did not apply with Ilija. His professors were a part of the community that he valued so much. As such, he believed that doing well in school was not only a personal achievement, but also a way of honoring the relationships that he developed with his professors and the time they had invested in him. Most people who knew Ilija, however, would say that he valued the latter more than the former – and that’s manifested in the fact that he graduated in four years with honors in two degrees.
Ilija’s intelligence and compassion for others may have only been surpassed by his wit. Whether it was telling people who were curious about his accent that he was a spy from Russia or that his Serbian chocolates had mosquitoes in them, Ilija’s sometimes self-deprecating humor allowed him to humanize the evident disconnect between our culture and his own. This was no easy task. It also didn’t hurt that he was an outstanding cook – something I greatly appreciated during the two years we were roommates. Each time he came back from Serbia, our friends would line up out the door of our apartment to try the homemade food and plum or peach liquor (slivovitz) that he’d stuff into his suitcases. Nothing would make him happier than to tell stories to his wide-eyed friends while they ate his food and drank his liquor. The sense of brotherhood that he developed as a young child was so deeply ingrained that it never escaped him – and ultimately rubbed off on his friends.
Even in his death.
After our graduation from the College – when I’d met his family for the first time – the two of us moved to Chicago, and I’d remained friendly with his family. I therefore became a liaison for his family, the coroner and the Serbian consulates in Chicago and Belgrade upon Ilija’s fatal heart failure, which was thought to be caused by a preexisting coronary condition.
Ilija’s father flew from Serbia to Chicago to collect his belongings and meet with both the consul and myself. We met on a Friday afternoon in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, and I remember agonizing about what I would say to Mr. Veljkovic the entire cab ride there. When I finally arrived, however, Ilija’s father greeted me in a thick accent: “Hi Graig, how is your little brother? He must be getting very big now.”
I was floored. Here is a man who had just gone through the most devastating thing any parent can experience, and – just like Ilija – he was completely selfless. He’d met my brother over dinner in Charleston two years prior; he didn’t have to ask about him at all! What’s more, he’d also brought gifts for a few of Ilija’s friends; homemade peach slivovitz and my favorite Serbian chocolates that Ilija had told him I liked. It would have been perfectly reasonable for Mr. Veljkovic’s grief to take precedence over his consideration for others, but, even in this horrific time, he was compassionate and generous. It was easy to see what had shaped Ilija into such a remarkable friend.
Later that evening, we cried while looking through Ilija’s stuff, which had been boxed up, and Mr. Veljkovic asked that I take a few things to remember him. Like any European, Ilija was a fanatic about soccer, and one of his most prized possessions was a soccer scarf for the Serbian national team, the White Eagles. Today, it hangs above the doorway in my bedroom.
It is my personal tribute to Ilija.
Of course, I was not Ilija’s only friend – and this is not the only tribute to him. Undoubtedly a testament to the adoration people have for Ilija, a memorial – including a live oak, a marble and bronze plaque and a cast-iron bench – is now situated in one of the most scenic locations on campus: the Stern Center Garden. Over 50 College alumni donated funds to make this possible. It is with great pride that we are able to honor his memory and make certain that his footprint on the College of Charleston will be forever visible. Just as the tragedies of Ilija’s upbringing in Serbia instilled in him an unwavering benevolence, his untimely death galvanized in his friends a sense of altruism perfectly befitting of such a great man.
It is my hope that this memorial serves as a means not only to immortalize Ilija and what he stood for, but also to facilitate each of our individual abilities to laugh, to think and to cry. Very few people have the capacity to help us do this; Ilija Veljkovic was one of them.
He is loved, missed and will forever be in our thoughts, hearts … and gardens.
– Graig Norden ’07 is a marketing associate at New Century Advisors in Chevy Chase, Md.