Happy 111th, Percy

Village marked famous scientist's centennial 11 years ago

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Editor's note: For our 30th anniversary we're reprinting some of our favorite past features. This one first ran on April 7, 1999.

Centennials are reserved for recognizing individuals who made extraordinary contributions to their society. And just as we have been graced by two blue moons this year, Oak Park enjoys the unusual distinction of celebrating not one, but two significant centennials in 1999. Everyone knows about the guy named Ernie. Not as many are familiar with Percy.

That would be Percy Lavon Julian, Oak Park resident for the last 25 years of his life and one of the most accomplished scientists of the 20th Century - a feat made even more remarkable by the fact that he was African American.

"Percy Julian is at least as famous in scientific circles as Hemingway is in literary circles," says Norb Teclaw, co-chairman with former village trustee William Fillmore of the Centennial Banquet, scheduled for this Sunday, April 11 at Mar-Lac House. April 11, as it happens, is the 100th anniversary of Julian's birth in Montgomery, Ala.

He served as director of research at Glidden Paint Co. on Chicago's West Side from 1936-54, a time period during which many of his discoveries occurred. Julian used soy beans to produce - cheaply and in mass quantities - artificial hormones, or "sterols," which had applications in everything from birth control pills to cortisone to fire extinguishers used on Navy vessels during World War II.

The wizard of soy: Dr. Percy Julian had over 100 patents to his name. He moved to Oak Park in 1950 and lived here until his death in 1975.

Dr. Julian receives an honorary doctorate from his alma mater, De Pauw University in Indiana

Norb Teclaw and Sherlynn Reid with the Julian bust, commissioned for his centennial

The Julian home, which was firebombed twice when the family moved to Oak Park in 1950

Percy Julian with his wife, Anna. Courtesy Du Sable Museum


In the 1950s, he started his own lab, Julian Laboratories in Franklin Park (and Mexico City). Using the root of a wild Mexican yam, he produced a treatment for glaucoma, developed a process for converting cholesterol to a substance used in the manufacture of vitamin D, and created a soy protein extract used in coating and sizing paper. He worked long hours and was credited with well over 100 patents.

Julian, in fact, was already a celebrated scientist when he purchased a home in Oak Park in 1950, but his reception here was rocky. Even before the family could move into the house at 515 N. East Ave., it was firebombed, and it happened again after they moved in. But Julian had overcome bigger odds throughout his life and eventually he was accepted as one of the village's more admired citizens.

Three schools have been named after him (including Percy Julian Middle School in Oak Park) and along with numerous honorary doctorates, several buildings on a variety of university campuses bear his name as well. In 1950, he was voted "Chicago's Man of the Year" in a Sun-Times poll, and the U.S. Postal Service honored him with a stamp in 1993.

In other words, a figure worthy of a centennial celebration. Yet as of 14 months ago, we reported that Julian's was "A legacy in limbo" (Wednesday Journal, 2/18/98).

Fortunately, a number of local citizens came together last September and formed a Centennial Committee to plan the event. The committee included Sherlynn Reid, director of Community Relations for the Village of Oak Park; Daphne Lecesne, OPRF faculty member and Julian parent; Bette Wilson, director of District 97's Multicultural Education department; Bill McGlynn, director of Julian's CAST program; OPRF dean Kevin Washington; Wednesday Journal columnist and radio journalist Stan West; Jeri Stenson, head of Maywood's West Town Cultural Museum; Frank Lipo, director of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest; Peggy Sinko, Historical Society volunteer; and Jennings Miller, who will videotape the events on Sunday.

But the celebration actually begins tomorrow, with an open house scheduled at Julian Jr. High, 7-9 p.m., which will include displays of a number of student projects, poetry readings, a performance by the jazz band, dance demonstrations, essay (contest) readings (the high school sponsored a separate essay contest), the results of an inventors contest and art logo awards, and the hanging of a mural.

The Julian CAST program has already performed an original work, titled "Different Voices," based on the writings and speeches of Percy Julian, and the students will perform it again this Sunday in the OPRF Library at 3 p.m.

Immediately following, at approximately 3:45, Stan West will moderate a panel discussion on Julian's life. The panel will include such distinguished guests as Dr. Arnold Hirsch, chief chemist at Julian Laboratories; Dr. William Clusin, an Oak Park native who teaches at the Stanford University School of Medicine (and who was inspired by Julian to get involved in the civil rights struggle); and Julian's daughter, Faith, who still lives in the family home in Oak Park.

The banquet at Mar-Lac that evening will feature music by jazz saxophonist Audley L. Reid (because Julian worked his way through college playing saxophone and piano), and testimonials from Hirsh, Congressman Danny Davis, and journalist Vernon Jarrett, plus a surprise guest. Tickets for the banquet cost $32 and the money raised will be used to create a bronze bust of Dr. Julian. There is no admission fee for the events at the high school.

The Historical Society exhibit of Julian memorabilia will be on display in the showcases at the high school this week (and later at Pleasant Home), and Teclaw says a display used in an earlier Julian commemoration in Anaheim, Calif., sponsored by the American Chemical Society, will be on hand for viewing at the banquet.

Teclaw, who taught physics at the high school for 30 years, and who remembers when Julian visited the school in the 1970s, got involved in organizing the banquet this past January after reading a letter in the paper from Julian's personal secretary. He and Fillmore commissioned 14 banners, which the village volunteered to hang across the village.

In fact, Teclaw has become so immersed in the centennial celebration, "I feel like I'm walking around in his skin." He describes Julian as much more than an accomplished scientist. "He had a focus and a broad road to walk on," Teclaw says, "and he walked that road. He was a taskmaster. He knew the potential of people and he brought that out." Julian Laboratories, he noted, was like "a working U.N."

Julian was always driven by his scientific work, Teclaw says, "but he also had a strong community bent" and will be remembered for his humanitarian efforts as well.

"He needs to become a hero for our youth," he says. "That's what I'm hoping for." And he's also hoping the community will come out this Thursday and Sunday to celebrate an extraordinary life, well lived. "He doesn't stand in anybody's shadow," says Teclaw. "Don't ignore a favorite son of ours."

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