Ralph Burlingham remembers clearly the day Silas Purnell strode into his office at Ada S. McKinley Community Services. "I think it was Christmas of '66," he says. "Someone had broken in and stolen our clock, our adding machine, and our typewriter. Our secretary said, 'I know where we can get a clock,' and she called Silas. So here he came up the sidewalk, and he had a Coca-Cola uniform on and a clock under his arm. He was a big man, very commanding, physically strong, and a powerful voice. And he asked me that penetrating question--what was I doing for the community?"
Burlingham, who'd become executive director of the south-side agency earlier that year, was astonished. "He began to tell me what he was doing out of his own pocket, on his own time--his program of getting kids in college. He's messianic--I'm an ordained minister, I can use some of this terminology. I was so taken by this I asked him if he would be interested in joining our board of directors. I think there was something almost providential in our meeting."
Purnell helped more than 50,000 African-Americans get to college. Now he's 79 and nearly blind, and his broad-shouldered frame has shed most of its muscle. When he's talking he sometimes has to stop, lean over, and catch his breath. But when he talks about higher education for African-Americans, his voice gains power.
"I come from a large family that had nothing, and we were in a neighborhood that had nothing," says Purnell. "So it was natural that you try and share. I was born at home, 537 E. 33rd St., March 10, 1923. Went to school at Forestville, Wendell Phillips, Wilson Junior College [now Kennedy-King]. It really didn't make a difference, 'cause they didn't care whether we learned anything or not."
In the early 40s even well-educated black men had few opportunities for advancement, so once Purnell finished at Wilson he took jobs where he could find them. "I went to the railroad, did whatever a black does--either wash dishes or deliver food," he says. "That was Santa Fe. I went into the service. I was in the air force, which was a disgrace for black folks to be in. They had enemy up here at Fort Sheridan that they treated better than American black soldiers. Guys getting time for nothing, one guy committing suicide. Instead of committing suicide he should've shot his commanding officer first. They'd have thought twice about a whole lot of things.
"I got out--must've been '45, '46. All the jobs was the same. They wanted whites for good trainee jobs. They wanted blacks for dirty, nasty jobs that don't pay anything. We were not going to get a square deal on nobody's job. So I hustled. I had a valet service goin', I sold clothes on my own, I sold bedsheets--anything I could buy and sell. I always kept some kind of hustle."
He also went back to school, studying business at Roosevelt, Shields Institute, and eventually Northwestern University, and in the mid-50s he landed a job as a delivery man for Coca-Cola. It was increasingly evident to him that the younger generation was going to need degrees. "A kid, he don't have a diploma or nothin' going for him, his chances are slim and none," he says. "The problem was, how were they going with no money? That's the reason I talked to people who were in universities, who knew higher education. I contacted universities, I contacted scholarship people--all people like this. It wasn't so much raising money as it was raising opportunity."
By the mid-60s he'd established a network of contacts at large and small schools across the country. And he recruited students wherever he could, including on his Coca-Cola route. "I asked 'em, 'What are you gonna be doing three years from today? Welfare or jail?' People I met on the street, anywhere. 'Do you want to go to school? Well, you can go to school. Let me go talk to somebody. Get me a copy of your transcripts.'"
After he joined McKinley's board of directors in early 1967, Purnell left his job with Coca-Cola--by then he was a sales manager--and threw himself full-time into pushing education under the agency's auspices. At first there were no funds to pay him. "I saved my money," he says. "If you don't kiss behind, you got to keep an eye on the bank account. I worked for them without seeing a penny for 13 months. Well, I knew they didn't know what they were doin'. I figured, I'm gonna work for nothing, ain't too much I gotta put up with--they have to put up with me. So I could help them and at the same time help the community." Finally Burlingham got a grant from the Chicago Community Trust that let him start paying Purnell.
Under Purnell the agency's educational services division grew to include a youth academic program, which offers tutoring and mentoring to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders; Upward Bound, which gives academic help and counseling to junior high and high school students; and Talent Search, which links students to colleges and helps them arrange financial aid.
Burlingham says Purnell never fit the mold of a not-for-profit administrator. "Silas was his own man," he says, chuckling. "I had to run interference for him a few times. Si would never sit down for an audit or anything like that--that was just bureaucracy. A federal auditor one year offended Silas, and Silas virtually threw him out. We lost our funding three years back-to-back [in the early 90s]. Fortunately, through the offices of Senator [Paul] Simon and congressmen [Charles] Hayes and Bobby Rush, we got it back. There was never any doubt about the integrity of the program. He ran the most frugal of operations. His expense accounts--this guy hardly spent any money on himself."
In his dealings with students and colleges Purnell remained as blunt as he'd been when he was working the streets. "You gotta let kids know that if they don't make it themselves, they're not gonna have anything," he says. "They've got to do for self--don't nobody else care. And if they want to waste time I say, 'Well, somebody else out on the street got time to waste. I don't have any.'
"I went from two-year colleges to major universities all over the country. No settin' up--just go. Raise your hand, get the floor. Any kind of meeting that had to do with college, college admissions, or college period. Say, 'I got a kid. I know he can make it.' 'Don't have any money?' 'Absolutely no money.' My job was to get 'em in there. They had to find a way to keep 'em there. Once they see a couple of 'em make it, they go out of their way to do things. See, if you got the president of the school in your corner he'll find a way."
Most of the young people Purnell worked with were the first in their families to go to college. They needed help with money for books and personal expenses as well as tuition, and they often felt isolated and lonely after arriving on campus. Judy Gay, McKinley's supervisor of vocational and rehabilitation services, believes that Purnell's sensitivity to these concerns was key to his success. "It was innate in him to be able to listen and see what the family could do, couldn't do, couldn't provide, in terms of knowledge, in terms of just caring," she says. "He just picked up on that stuff well."
Gay first met Purnell in 1970, when she was a junior at Harlan High. "He worked with our class for a year, into our senior year. He made sure we took the ACT tests, made sure we had enough information to go home and talk it over with our parents. He took us on a trip to Eastern Illinois University. We didn't know anything about a college but what we had heard. Mr. Purnell made sure the financial aid was straight, he made sure the housing was correct, he had people on campus that would look out for all the new kids. Mr. Purnell was there when we got there, and he would show up any time of the day or the night--you never knew he was coming--to just check on us."
Gay says she encountered "a whole lot of prejudice" on campus and off, and she left Eastern after her first year. A few years later, again with Purnell's help, she enrolled at the University of Iowa. "He took a bunch of us there, made sure we got registered and everything. When I got frustrated at one point I called Mr. Purnell and said, 'I'm gonna come home. I cannot deal with this pressure.' He said, 'OK, hang up the phone.' Less than ten minutes later there was somebody at my door--'Dean Phillip Jones wants you in his office.' Dean Jones said, 'Si just called me. What's the problem?' And we sat there three or four hours, mapped out how I could get the credits I needed. Once we got through, he called Mr. Purnell on the phone, and [Purnell] said, 'OK sweetheart, you know what you got to do.' So I got my classes and graduated."
Gay eventually went on to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and again Purnell was there to help. "He called the university. The gentleman told him, 'It's past registration time. We're starting classes in a couple weeks.' When he got off the phone he said, 'Get in your car tomorrow morning. Here's the directions.' A girlfriend of mine wanted a master's. He said, 'Take her up there.' We got our unofficial transcripts--we didn't have but overnight--we rolled up to Whitewater and met with the man, sat down, mapped out courses. He told us, 'You all have to be on campus the following week.' No money, no nothing--didn't know where anything was coming from. We got back up there--everything was taken care of. They gave us an apartment, vouchers for our books. They had jobs set up for us. I got my master's in guidance and counseling."
She too thinks Purnell was on a mission. "If you keep doing something and everything keeps coming out right, then that's meant for you to do," she says. "But still, he's humble. 'Never forget where you come from. Never forget to give back.'"
Burlingham guesses that Purnell had a close working relationship with at least 300 deans of admissions. "I was raised in a little town in northern Wisconsin called Bruce, way up north of Eau Claire," he says. "Nine miles west of Bruce there's a small city called Ladysmith, and in Ladysmith there's a college founded by Roman Catholic nuns called Mount Senario. Silas found that college. He had kids from Chicago up there--there are kids there today."
"Utah, Wyoming," says Gay. "Places black people hadn't even heard of. Mr. Purnell had a station wagon, and that station wagon stayed on the road. Maybe he was dropping somebody off at a college and he found out there was a college 20 miles away. He would just go there and look and see what they had to offer. Once he got to campuses, kids from other towns, black kids from other states, if they needed anything, next day they're calling Chicago. 'OK, you go see this person. Tell 'em Mr. Purnell sent you.'"
"He has a commitment that is just unmatched," says Burlingham. "I think he's a giant. If there could be an African-American hall of fame, he certainly would have to be included."
Purnell, who officially retired from McKinley last year, continues to meet with young people whenever he feels strong enough. "Society is a racist society," he says. "People want you to believe that you're worth nothing and you can't make it. You just have to make up your mind that you're gonna make it. I got kids, horrible records, low test scores. Some of these kids had the worst transcripts in the world, and they're doctors and lawyers today. People got to learn to take the kids the way they are, not the way they want 'em to be. They don't need pity, and they don't need all this criticism all the time. Quit finding out what's wrong with them--find out what's right with them.
"We have to treat education like it's serious business, and we don't. These kids, they gonna catch hell with no education. It's rough out here, and it's gonna get rougher every day."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.