Alumnus believes in 'paying it forward and paying it back'

Distinguished Service Award recognizes Doug Hoffman for championing Department of Religion
Doug Hoffman
Doug Hoffman, LAS Distinguished Service Award honoree. 

Doug Hoffman graduated from the newly formed Program in Religious Studies in 1975. This year, what is now known as the Department of Religion is belatedly celebrating its 50th anniversary. Hoffman and his longtime friend and mentor Gary Porton, professor emeritus, are helping to organize the anniversary event along with Jonathan Ebel, head of the department. This is just one example of the many ways that Hoffman continues to connect with the College and his department.

For his years of support and efforts at promoting the Department of Religion at Illinois, Hoffman (BA ’75, religious studies) is being honored with the 2023 LAS Distinguished Service Award.

For his entire 42-year working career, Hoffman was a member of or an employee of  the Chicago Board Options Exchange (CBOE), now known as Cboe Global Markets, retiring in 2017.

“I succeeded at a high level in business, both as an exchange member and manager because I was able to think deeply, analyze clearly, and speak and write with clarity, as a result of my education at Illinois,” Hoffman said. “Now I’m in a position to pay back the Department of Religion. I want to spread the word of the valuable education offered there and champion the study of religion at Illinois ”

Hoffman does this by sponsoring the Hoffman Family Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Study of Religion, which goes to an outstanding graduating senior in the department. He has also launched a fund to support a professor teaching topics of Judaism  He hosts an annual dinner for all the department award recipients. He is, as he says, “a cheerleader” for the department: engaging with students, speaking with faculty, and encouraging fellow alums to give. On campus, he’s involved with the Program in Jewish Studies as the chair of its advisory council. 

At the end of his sophomore year at Illinois, Hoffman was considering either philosophy or religious studies and met the head of the Program in Religious Studies, William Schoedel, who had been recruited to launch the program, which was about two years old at the time.

Hoffman remembers that “there were only three or four faculty members in the program then, but Schoedel told me that Gary Porton had been hired to teach Jewish thought and history, beginning in the fall.” Once Hoffman heard about the new hire, he knew he would pursue religious studies. Once he met Porton, his decision was sealed.

“There's a thread of friendship that runs throughout my whole career at Illinois, beginning with Professor Schoedel who recruited Gary, and his wife, Fraeda, to come to Champaign,” Hoffman said. “Then I also met Rabbi Steve Steinberg and his wife. We are all still friends today.”

Illinois also plays a crucial role in his family: His father, Herb (’50, accounting) met his mother, Arlene, on campus. His sister, Judith (’78, speech) also attended Illinois. And he met his wife, Rebecca (‘79, microbiology) later through a social connection with an undergraduate roommate. 

The leap from religious studies to finance was more fortuitous than anything else. After graduating from Illinois, Hoffman considered attending the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion to become a rabbi. He applied to graduate school and was accepted, but money was tight, so he decided to work for a year to save some funds.

He moved back to Chicago and looked for help finding a job at the Jewish Vocational Service. They set him up with a position on the floor of the CBOE. While there, he applied to Hebrew Union College, but was refused admission twice and realized he was enjoying his work at the CBOE. In 1977, he started trading for himself and rose through the ranks as a member, eventually chairing the systems committee, and later becoming an exchange employee.

As for his support of the department, Hoffman thinks it’s part of his responsibility to contribute.

“Isn't that what you're supposed to do? You know, it’s paying it forward and paying back. I talk about the program and let everyone know that great universities have great departments in liberal arts. Even an engineering major can have a religious studies minor, and get a broad, liberal education, and that's what a great university should do.

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Maeve Reilly