Andrew Purnell is known as the man who can solve all kinds of problems—from his major in mathematics to addressing local discrimination as an undergraduate, followed by establishing as an alumnus a group that has empowered Illinois State black students for 35 years.
An ability to find solutions combined with his vision and determination has made Purnell ’57 an exceptional educator and mentor throughout his career. Add in humor with humility, and it is no wonder individuals across generations appreciate Purnell and the fruits of his labor.
Among the grateful are the myriad Redbirds who have benefitted financially and academically through the Illinois State
University Black Colleagues Association (BCA) that Purnell and others initiated in 1983. The group was chartered in 1984 with 40 members. Since then, more than $280,000 has been raised. There were nearly 300 active members who contributed $30,910 last year. All funds are earmarked primarily for scholarship assistance to black students.
“The Black Colleagues Association has led the way as an ISU alumni affinity group,” said Pat Vickerman, vice president of University Advancement. “While celebrating their heritage, BCA members remain dedicated to keeping the Illinois State experience affordable and accessible to African American students.”
That has been the goal since its founding, according to Purnell, who is “happily surprised by the success.” The association was formed “specifically to promote the interests and welfare of black students, faculty, staff, and alumni.” The association fulfills its purpose by helping to recruit students, then encouraging them as they adjust to collegiate life.
The result is friendships between mentors and students that last years beyond graduation. In addition, the group focuses on helping students finish a degree. From the first $500 given in 1987 to the 13 financial awards provided during the current academic year, BCA lifts up individuals through several scholarship funds.
Among them is the Judge Russell DeBow Scholarship in memory of the 1935 graduate who participated in writing the BCA’s original bylaws and constitution. “He was with us when we started,” Purnell said, remembering a group of graduates he met with in Chicago in 1983 for a reunion. Conversation arose during the gathering about how alums could be engaged. “We were interested in raising retention rates of black students. We wanted them to stay in school and graduate.”
What’s ironic about Purnell participating in such an effort is the fact he did not want to attend ISU, and he had no plans to finish a degree at the University once he arrived in 1953.
Born in Chicago, Purnell was raised by parents who worked hard at jobs that paid little. He attended college in the city. His sibling, Barbara, enrolled at what was then Illinois State Normal University. Her decision led to parental pressure for Purnell.
“They said I should go with her. I did not want to go away. They worked on me a whole semester until they finally convinced me,” he said. “I don’t know why I agreed to come to ISU. I came thinking I would stay for a year, but within two weeks I was sold on the University.”
One reason for the hesitancy was that Purnell wanted to study engineering, which the University did not offer. He opted for industrial arts with a minor in mathematics, deciding in his junior year on math as his major. His reluctance also stemmed from the expense. Purnell found a way to cover costs by working as a mail carrier in the summer months and taking campus jobs.
“I worked in Dunn Hall in food service,” he said. “I could either take pay or work for my meals, so I had my food expense covered and was able to pay for my whole first year.
He developed close relationships through activities that included intramural wrestling, fast-pitch softball, and bowling. He also focused on campus issues as a member of the class advisory board, and joined peers in forming the University’s first NAACP chapter. One motivation to start the group was to end discrimination beyond campus and Normal.
“We wanted to test the public accommodations for African Americans in Bloomington,” Purnell said, adding that obvious problems needed to be challenged. For example, African Americans were only allowed to roller skate on one specific day each month. The same policy was in place at the Bloomington YWCA swimming pool.
Dining was another issue Purnell tackled as the chapter vice president. NAACP members tested the service they received when dining as couples or groups that included white students compared to when only black students were customers.
“When we went back, they would not serve us,” Purnell said. After several months, he and the chapter president met with the McLean County State’s Attorney to present their findings and push for change. They gained assurances action would be taken to stop the unlawful discrimination.
“The practice was not ended overnight, but it did end,” Purnell said, noting the accomplishment was empowering. “At a certain point in life, you feel like standing up and saying something. You figure out the problem, and how to solve it. If you are successful, it encourages you to do more.”
That same drive for purpose and change motivated Purnell throughout his life. Following graduation, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and assigned classified government work because of his mathematical ability.
“This work gave me an appreciation for what I learned in the classroom at Illinois State,” Purnell said. Upon leaving the military, he began teaching math in a junior high school and later at Eisenhower High School.
After several years of teaching, Purnell began work on a master’s program and graduated with a degree in supervision and administration. He served as an administrator in several positions at Eisenhower High School, and later at Alan B. Shepard High School in Palos Heights. He chose retirement in 1994, allowing more time with family, including his three adult children: Sharon ’87, Anthony, and Timothy.
He continues to be committed to Illinois State, which has recognized his contributions with induction into the Steve and Sandy Adams Legacy Hall of Fame and as a recipient of the Alumni Association Mercier Outstanding Service Award. He was chosen as the alumnus Homecoming king in 2013, which created one more opportunity for Purnell to return to campus. He enjoys every visit, especially meeting with ISU administrators who have been supportive of the BCA since its start.
Purnell credits Charles Morris, former vice president of Administrative Services, for his help in getting the association started. He appreciates the support that has come from ISU presidents, including Victor Boschini Jr., Al Bowman, and currently Larry Dietz. He is grateful for support from Gloria-Jeanne Davis, past ISU director of Affirmative Action; Alumni Engagement staff; and Vickerman, who applauds the BCA’s unwavering support of Redbirds across three decades.
“BCA scholarships provide welcomed financial assistance to Redbird students, who gain confidence that they belong at ISU because the BCA has invested in their future,” Vickerman said. “The University is so grateful for BCA’s engagement, enthusiasm, and private gift support of our talented and deserving students.”
Purnell is equally thankful for BCA members across the country, who stay motivated in the mission to help students. To date, the BCA has provided 192 scholarships. Graduates from across the country have joined, including many who received financial help while a student at the University.
“BCA is going strong and keeps evolving as we look for different ways of doing things to get students involved and provide the support they need to stick with their education,” said Purnell, who maintains a list of all BCA scholarship recipients. The spreadsheet includes each student’s graduation date.
He smiles while reflecting on the stories of students who persevered to complete their ISU education with the help of the BCA. “Just knowing they earned their degree, that alone is enough gratification for me.”
To learn more about BCA or to make a gift to support BCA scholarships, go to Alumni.IllinoisState.edu/BCA. For information about joining the association, contact Lindsay Vahl at email@example.com or (309) 438-7380.