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In Memoriam: Silas Purnell

In MemoriamSilas Purnell (1923-2003)An African proverb says, “I am because we are and because we are, therefore, I am.” Silas Purnell didn’t believe that he was an important person. He believed, like the African proverb, that he was only important because of the work he was doing for his community and the people he loved. For 35 years in the basement of the Dearborn Homes housing development project on Chicago’s South Side, Purnell helped more than 60,000 young men and women accomplish their dreams of achieving academic and professional success. In the basement of the Dearborn Homes project, Purnell was the magic man. Future educators, lawyers, judges and other professionals were all occupants of the Ada S. McKinley Educational Service Talent Search Program, directed by Purnell. As some of the residents played basketball in playground lots outside the basement door, hundreds of others waited endless hours to talk with Purnell and his staff about fulfilling their desire to obtain a better education.As a high-school senior, I worked at Interlake Steel Mills in Riverdale, Ill., outside of Chicago. When I graduated, I continued working in the mill until one day in August, Ms. Boulware, (a family friend) talked to me about going downtown to talk to this man named Silas Purnell about my future. I didn’t know anything about college at that time in my life. During my high-school years I worked over 12 different jobs, from washing dishes at the local YMCA to working at Raggedy Ann’s Cookie Factory. As I waited like so many others, I wondered what I was really doing there. My mother, who was divorced from my father, was raising seven children, and my major goal was to continue working to assist her financially. But I continued to hear this loud commanding voice shout out instructions to his staff, “Alice get me an application to Waterwater, Utah and Lawrence College and don’t forget the FAF application. We can ship you out of here next week, with a one-way ticket.”    It was finally my time to talk to Mr. Purnell. Two weeks later, I was on a college campus in Canton, Mo., wondering, “What in the hell am I doing here?” His encouragement, mentoring and kindness were the foundation of my educational life. I graduated and went back to Chicago and worked with Purnell as a college placement counselor. My education continued. He told me he was going to pay me as much as he could for one year because he wanted me to move ahead in my educational life. After that year, I left the office but not Mr. Purnell. I went on to earn a master’s degree and a doctorate, and Mr. Purnell was always there with me. Purnell believed that determination and persistence were the key elements in educational achievement. I remember him telling me, “Someone out there is looking for an alternative and it is our responsibility to provide information that will give them educational options in their lives.” He was my mentor, my colleague and my friend. He made educational dreams become a reality. Purnell’s legacy will live on in the lives of the thousands of individual men and women he touched.  He should not be eulogized more in death than he was in life. His commitment to educational access and excellence during his life speaks for itself. Silas Purnell’s life was not lived in vain and we are all the better for it. — By Dr. Quincy L. Moore
Dean, Undergraduate Studies
West Chester University
West Chester, Pa.

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