Big Man on Campus

IT MAY TAKE A VILLAGE to raise a child, but it took only one man to send 50,000 kids off to college.

Silas Purnell has been a one-man college placement office for thousands of African-American youth since the mid-1950s. Friends describe him as a man on a mission, one that began with his conviction that without a diploma, a kid’s chances are “slim and none.” Though his own education at various Chicago-area schools failed to open many doors in the pre-civil rights era, Purnell, now 79, never lost faith in the power of learning. After leaving the Air Force in the mid-1940s, when nothing awaited him but “dirty, nasty jobs,” he peddled clothes, bedsheets,–“anything I could buy and sell,” he told the Chicago Reader (July 12, 2002).

His gift for salesmanship was soon applied to another purpose. Purnell began hawking the promise of higher education to kids who had never even thought about attending college.

At first, Purnell worked the streets in Chicago, often recruiting kids on his route as a Coca-Cola delivery man. By the mid-1960s, through sheer will, he had established a network of contacts at two-year colleges and major universities nationwide.

“Mr. Purnell had a station wagon,” recalls career counselor Judy Gay, whom Purnell guided to degrees at both the University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “And that station wagon stayed on the road.” Gay told the Reader that Purnell would drop off somebody at one college, find there was another school 20 miles away, and drive on to see what it had to offer.

Purnell eventually parlayed his selfless calling into a day job (without pay for the first year), operating out of a community service agency on Chicago’s south side.

“My job was to get ’em in there,” he says. But it wasn’t easy. “Some of these kids had the worst transcripts in the world, and they’re doctors and lawyers today,” explains Purnell, who officially retired last year, but still talks with kids about their dreams. “People got to learn to take the kids the way they are, not the way they want ’em to be. . . . Quit finding out what’s wrong with them–find out what’s right with them.”

Miriam Karmel is a Minneapolis writer.

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