Professor James Franklin Sharp has several plaques in his honor inside Chester High School and a bench named for him outside the Colbert Gym entrance, but what he has truly given the school is harder to take a picture of.
Sharp, a 1954 graduate, has been funding three college scholarships for CHS seniors since 1999. In 2017-18 he donated $50,000 for student trips, science equipment, Chromebooks and a multitude of classroom supplies.
Then in 2018 he brought it all together with a gift of $500,000 -- setting up a Fidelity Charitable Giving Fund that establish a "perpetual endowment" to support classroom activities and the three Sharp Scholarships on an ongoing basis.
What Sharp is funding, simply, is opportunity.
"With my donations ... I am hoping to provide an improved learning experience, that will help CHS students to appreciate school more, and keep them from dropping out," Sharp explained. "And, make them want to continue their education after high school, either in college or in some vocational training."
Sharp might be Chester's most famous alumni, or at least its most successful.
His own life story has Horatio Alger-like elements. Graduating from Chester High School in 1954, a time when many of his classmates were looking for jobs, Sharp was just getting his education started. He studied industrial engineering at the University of Illinois, getting his Bachelor of Science degree in 1959. A master of science degree from Purdue followed in 1961 and a doctorate of philosophy from Purdue came in 1966. He returned to Purdue for certified management accounting in 1979. In 2009 he was honored as the Outstanding Purdue Alumnus of the Year.
Sharp went on to teach at Rutgers, the NYU Graduate School of Business and in the graduate school of business at Pace University. In the corporate world he did business research, corporation planning and financial management for AT&T and more.
He is the founder and chairman of Sharp Seminars, a training provider for Wall Street portfolio managers and security analysts.
Living in New York City and a celebrated teacher and speaker, Sharp could easily have never looked back to southern Illinois. But the son of James Albert "Jake" Sharp and Edna Mae Slack didn't forget his roots.
James Franklin Sharp was born Sept. 29, 1936 in Johnson County. His father worked as a prison guard. Jake Sharp had longed to attend Vienna High School but never got the chance, thanks to a stepmother who insisted he get a job after 8th grade.
Sharp's mother was luckier. Edna Mae had to live away from home to enroll at Vienna High School, but she graduated, and then attended SIUC for two years to get a teaching certificate.
Education, not surprisingly, was prized in the Sharp household.
"My father was intelligent, and did well in school," Sharp said. "(He) was successful, based on his amount of education, but believed he could have been much more successful if he had more formal education."
Jake encouraged both his children to do well in school and get as much education as possible. Sharp said his dad would have him stand at the end of the hall, drilling the boy on his homework.
His younger sister, Rosanna, also became a teacher.
Sharp's keen interest in, and affection for, Chester High School never waned. He is a popular graduation speaker here -- he spoke at the Chester Grade School graduations in 2000, 2010 and will again in 2020; and was the keynoter at the high school commencements in 2004 and 2014. He will return for the 2024 Chester graduation in 2024.
In August of 2017, Sharp and his sister, Rosanna Sharp-Myers, returned to their hometown to take part in the Great American Eclipse, and had a great visit.
The three scholarships that Sharp funds each year honor his parents and sister. The awards have been presented at CHS Honors Night for the past 20 years.
The Jake Sharp Scholarship is in memory of Professor Sharp's father, who passed away in 1971, and is awarded to the child of a Menard Penitentiary employee. The Edna Sharp Scholarship is awarded to a student studying to be a teacher, like his mother, who died in 2002.
The Rosanna Sharp-Myers Scholarship is awarded to a CHS cheerleader. Sharp-Myers taught at Chester High School when she was fresh out of college, and she and her brother continue to have close contacts with former classmates and others here.
Chester High School Principal Melissa Meyer said the classroom needs of many Chester teachers were fulfilled with the initial $50,000 that Sharp donated.
"We have been able to do a lot of things that we would not otherwise have been able to do if it wasn't for Dr. Sharp's kindness and generosity," she added, referring to new textbooks, Chromebooks, field trips and general classroom supplies.
The $500,000 perpetual fund will be even more far-reaching, Meyer added. It will give the district about $25,000 a year for teacher classroom activities, and another $6,000 a year for the three Sharp Scholarships.
"The former scholarships were about $500 apiece," she said. "This year we will be able to increase those scholarships to $2,000 apiece."
In recognition of Sharp's initial generosity the Chester High School installed a pretty bench in front of the Colbert Gym. It is a favorite spot for students to stop on fall, spring and summer evenings and before and after school.
This year, Chester Unit District 139 Superintendent Brian Pasero, the Chester Board of Education and Principal Missy Meyer made the decision to name the entrance to Colbert Memorial Gymnasium and the CHS cafeteria, "The Professor Sharp Cafeteria" in appreciation. Permanent plaques were installed inside the cafeteria and also on the outside entrance of the Colbert Gym and CHS Cafeteria.
Sharp appreciates the gestures, and is looking forward to visiting Chester this fall for his 65th high school reunion, where he will see the plaques in person for the first time.
Mostly, he wants his own story to inspire others in his hometown. The 82-year-old still teaches seminars for his own company, Sharp Seminars, in New York City.
"I still love to learn, and to help others learn," he said.