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Chicago's College Connection

For many inner-city youths, the road to higher education starts in Si Purnell's basement office. EDUCATION: SCHOLARSHIP SEEKER

JELADA HUFF decided two weeks earlier she wanted to go to college, so she has come to a cramped office underneath a housing project here. She is waiting with her mother for the man who can make it happen - Silas Purnell. Mr. Purnell has become a legend in Chicago's black community. He has helped thousands of ghetto teen-agers into college. Lawyers, teachers, and other professionals got their start through Purnell.

Quincy Moore owes his career to him: ``I never thought about school for myself,'' he recalls, just about how to help his mother raise a family of eight. A friend suggested the contact Purnell. ``He told me the best thing I could do for my family was to do something for myself,'' Mr. Moore recalls.

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That was the summer of 1968. Two weeks later, he was enrolled at Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo. He graduated with a triple major, went on to do counseling work at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and earned a masters degree there, then got his doctorate at the University of Iowa. Now, Moore is director of the academic support office at Virginia Commonwealth University, doing much the same work as Purnell.

His career without Purnell's help? ``I don't know,'' Moore says. ``I would have continued working in the steel mill.''

Robbie Logan knew she wanted to go to college and on to medical school, but she didn't have the finances to do it. Purnell and his small staff got a good financial aid package at the University of California at Berkeley, enough so she could handle the debts of medical school more easily.

``He's very motivating,'' says Ms. Logan, now in her third year of medical school. ``You can reach for whatever your goal is.''

Purnell says he's always been involved in getting black children into college. But it was in the mid-1960s that he quit his post as marketing manager for Coca-Cola to work fulltime in the field. He signed on with Ada S. McKinley Community Services, a nonprofit social agency working with mentally retarded and physically handicapped black children. Purnell launched the group's educational service, because he saw the tremendous need among inner-city youth.

``When you've got money, you can pay for tutors, you can take vacations, you can put your kids in the best schools,'' he says. ``Poor kids don't have access to all of that. They don't have any money. They have to take what they can get. That's a cold way of putting it, but that's the way it is.''

So, seven days a week, 10 and sometimes 14 hours a day, Purnell interviews students, harangues administrators, and scrambles for financial aid. He works out of a brightly colored basement office in Dearborn Homes, one of Chicago's heavily black housing projects on the South Side. He has resisted offers to move, saying that he should stay near the students who need him the most.

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``We can get anybody in college,'' he says. ``There are a lot of unpublished opportunities out there. ... I've found college presidents who, for all intents and purposes, didn't have a budget for this or a budget for that. But if we found students who were willing to do the thing, they would raise the money for them.'' Purnell's commanding presence and bluntness help make the case.

``He's relentless,'' says Joe Henry, graduate outreach coordinator for the University of Iowa's minority enrollment program. ``He's very good at getting university administrators to look at the other side.''

The ``other side'' often means the legacy of the ghetto: bad grades, bad attitudes, no resources, and no family history of college attendance.

``Some of our best students are students who hadn't done well in high school,'' Purnell says. ``A lot of time, they [college administrators] are just looking at the grades and not looking at the degree of difficulty that the kid had to overcome to get where he is. And when we work with some of these kids, we know the parents, know the kids, know the situation. We have a fairer idea, we think, of what they can do.''

In a year, Purnell and his full-time staff of five process some 5,000 students. More than 1,500 students are placed in institutions of higher learning each year. A little more than half of them will graduate, he says.

But numbers alone don't give the whole picture. Stories abound about this man and his continuing care for his students.

When one of them got stuck in a snowstorm on her way back to Virginia Commonwealth University, Purnell tracked down college secretary Helene Lovell and persuaded her to drive 10 miles through ice and snow to pick up the student at the airport and keep her in her home over the weekend until the dorms opened.

Mary Arnold was already a working counselor with a masters in education when her friend Purnell called up one day in 1982. ``He just said to me: `There's more that you can do, and the way you can do that is to get a PhD at the University of Iowa,''' she recalls. ``And I said: `A PhD!?'''

By 1983, she was enrolled at the university. Last month, Ms. Arnold graduated with that PhD and high hopes that she will teach counselors how to help minority students stay in college.

Chicago black educators universally praise Purnell's work, although they say he is so forceful that they often have to fight to get their point across.

``He has been the champion for those youngsters that other people have written off,'' says Bill Davis, education professor and director of Loyola University's project for first-generation and poor college students.

``My college prep program is where it is because of Si Purnell,'' says Joyce Oatman, an award-winning teacher and counselor at Crane High School on Chicago's West Side. But ``he threatens people that are not as strong as he is.''

The common thread among Purnell's best students is that after receiving so much, they have given back.

``The black community needs some good black images,'' says Nanette James, a second-year resident at a Chicago hospital. So, with Logan, she hopes to open up a group practice on the city's heavily black South Side.

Score one more triumph of education over the ghetto.

``The cheapest way to cut welfare rolls, to cut the unemployment rolls, to cut the jail rolls, is through education,'' Purnell says. ``I don't care what you say about job training and any of the rest of it. None of it, in my view, is as effective as educating people. Because not only are you giving them a skill ... you're teaching them how to think. And when they know how to think, they can solve their own problems.''

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