DECATUR – When Dan Bolsen was in kindergarten, the teacher left the room and the kids began to get rowdy.
Bolsen picked out a book and told his fellow students, "It's OK. Come over here and I'll read this to you."
When the teacher returned, she found the class gathered quietly around the 5-year-old Bolsen as he read them a book.
"He was always like that," said Bolsen's dad, Willis. "He always seemed older. He grew up mostly around adults and his brothers were older. And he looked older."
Adam Carver began to notice Bolsen was different than the other students in junior high.
"It was pretty evident he was going to be a special kid and do great things in his life," said Carver, Bolsen's best friend since kindergarten. "He was really intelligent, he was able to get along with adults and he was so personable. He can meet someone and a minute later they're in a deep conversation.
"I really started noticing it in seventh and eighth grade. That's when I probably knew he wasn't just a normal kid from Lovington."
By eighth grade, Bolsen was taking out a bank loan to buy Angus cattle – he later paid back the loan and made money that helped him pay for room and board in college. He was valedictorian and an Illinois State Scholar at Lovington, earning the Ronald W. Reagan Fellowship at Eureka College in 2009. He got his Master's Degree at the University of Illinois through the Illini Scholars Program. In June, he landed his first post-college job – Associate Director of Development at Millikin.
"He'll be a household name at some point," Carver said.
Bolsen grew up on a farm between Lovington and Dalton City. His family has farmed in the area for six generations. He bailed hay and shoveled manure like any farm kid, but Willis and Kathy Bolsen weren't the traditional small town parents.
Willis, known to many friends as "Toby," was a former junior college basketball player with a passion for the business of farming. He's been a cattleman for 50 years, raising Angus cattle and quarter horses. He's won the world championship in American Quarter Horse Association competition and had several national-level winning show cows and hunting dogs.
"He's successful at whatever he puts his mind to," Dan said. "He farmed, like our family had always done, and took it to a new level."
In that way, Dan is just like his dad: anything Dan tries, he excels at. And he tries a lot. Every time you think you know all of Dan's talents or accomplishments, another tidbit arises.
"You know, he was an All-State journalist in high school – one of only 10 in the state," Willis said.
Dan was also a state champion in team penning (an equestrian event in which riders herd cattle) and all-state in football and basketball at Lovington, though his parents say the activity he was best at was drama.
"From an early age, he liked to act," Kathy said. "He got the lead of the whole grade school play in third grade. He played Santa Claus and he had over a hundred lines."
"There were 368 lines," Dan said.
"Then he also had the lead in all four years of high school in the play," Kathy said.
Dan's success continued in college. At Eureka, the Reagan Leadership Program paid his tuition and earned him valuable career experience. Through the program, he worked with media relations at the Big Ten Tournament in 2011 and 2012, then later worked with Olson Public Relations in San Francisco, running social media for products including FitBit, GoPro and Dropcam.
For grad school, Dan was chosen for the Illini Scholars Program Graduate Assistantship. He worked for two years in the athletic department's academic services office.
Dan was the third Bolsen boy, 13 years younger than middle brother Wes. The first two Bolsen brothers, 40-year-old Georgia State University political science professor Toby and 38-year-old Denver ethanol executive Wes, both left home. Willis had hoped Dan would be the one to stay and farm.
"I tried to encourage him to stay with the cattle and horses," Willis said. "But he didn't want to do that. That probably bothers me more than anything else; I feel like it's my fault that I didn't instill the love of that in them."
What drew Dan's interest more was Kathy's career. She was a teacher, coach and later athletic director at Lovington.
"She gave up coaching volleyball when I was born, but she'd been a very successful coach; she had some ridiculous win percentages," Dan said. "But I saw her work as an athletic director, and that's where my love of the administrative side of athletics started.
"We were always a sports family and I grew up with a sports mindset. I started thinking I'd like to do what she's doing, but at another level."
When Dan was in third grade, he wrote on a form for the Moultrie County News-Progress that when he grew up, he wanted to be Athletic Director at the University of Illinois.
"Yes, I remember that," Kathy said. "I remember a year earlier, in second grade, they went on a field trip to the U of I and the football players took them out on the football field. He came home and said, 'This was the best day ever.' "
Dan, though, knows he's not ready to be the AD at a Division I university yet. But right now, he's gaining the kind of experience it's going to take.
As Associate Director of Development at Millikin, a job he started in June, Dan works with the Big Blue Club and Millikin coaches to raise money for the university.
"This job has probably never focused on athletics as much as it has right now," Dan said. "I knew coming in this job was kind of open-ended because of all the moving parts we have here; we have so many areas we need to get to, and athletics is one area that's really a priority right now. We have a lot of things we want to accomplish.
"(Millikin Athletic Director Craig White) needed a right-hand guy that he goes to for development-related things, and it's a role I've quickly embraced."
But while Dan chases his career, he hasn't put away his work boots for good. He still feeds livestock and helps out with anything else his dad needs. "I try to fill in the holes where I can," Dan said.
"He's still a good hand," Willis said.
While Willis still holds out hope that Dan will someday want to run the farm as a career, he's moved on to bigger goals.
"Whatever he does for a living, I just want him to do what he loves," Willis said. "It was natural with him growing up around sports-addicted people that he was going to gravitate toward the excitement over the dust and manure.
"But what do I see him eventually doing? Hopefully getting married and having me a bunch of grandkids."
It looks promising. Willis called Dan's girlfriend of six months Katherine Earl, a, "a nice lady; a pretty dignified woman, I'd say." And Earl sees the same qualities that have been drawing people to Dan since he was in kindergarten.
"He's an authentic, spirited individual," Earl said. "He's a genuine, true, passionate person – so full of life."
And, as Earl also pointed out, much of Dan's passion and life is focused on sports and athletics. "Hopefully, it'll always be part of his career, because he loves it," she said.
Carver said he has no doubt Bolsen will eventually reach the career goal he's always wanted.
"I tell him every time I see him, I know he's going to end up at U of I," Carver said. "I know they just got their new AD, but Dan is still young. He'll get it. That's just the type of person he is."