Man placed thousands of kids in college

Sunday, October 21, 2001

CHICAGO -- He was known simply as "that man who gets people into college."

So thousands came knocking at his office door, a converted storage room in the basement of a South Side public housing high-rise.

What they found was an energetic man who would do almost anything to help them get an advanced education -- pick up the phone and cajole a college administrator into accepting a bright but untested teen and wheedle some scholarship money or financial aid out of them, too; dig into his own wallet to help someone pay for books, bus fare to school or a pair of glasses; load up his station wagon with teens whose world view didn't extend beyond their gritty Chicago neighborhoods and drive them to distant campuses.

Silas Purnell, who retired this year at the age of 78, is credited with helping tens of thousands of youths, mostly disadvantaged blacks, get into college. Where others saw hopeless cases, he saw untapped potential.

"These kids, nobody placed any value on them. It was understood they'd grow up and be nothing," Purnell said. "I knew it didn't have to be that way."

Purnell was working as a marketing manager for Coca-Cola in the mid-'60s when he quit his job, opened his college placement service in that basement office and began what became more passion than profession. Ada S. McKinley Community Services Inc., where he ran the educational services division for 34 years, estimates he helped more than 50,000 students get into college.

'I could out-hustle anyone'

Purnell believes that figure is low. He said he worked seven days a week and took only two vacations over more than three decades.

"I knew I could out-hustle anyone on the street with the kids," he said. "I knew where the kids were and I wasn't afraid to go there."

Purnell said he was acting on a disturbing trend: kids held back by racism, poverty and history who "didn't have the slightest idea" how to get into college. That made his office in the Chicago Housing Authority's Dearborn Homes development ideal.

His tactics were often unsubtle. He'd petition local businesses for donations of shoes, clothes or cash; he'd stand up at meetings of college admissions officers and, in his booming voice, announce that he needed scholarship money.

"I got a black student who don't have any money," he'd say. Almost always there'd be takers.

Purnell says he didn't try to force schools to accept unqualified kids, but worked with the schools and the students to find appropriate situations. He would then stick by them, often driving to campuses to encourage struggling students and helping many pursue graduate degrees.

"The ticket they got was one way," Purnell said. "If you didn't make it, you had to walk home."

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