Many local residents consider Ade Onayemi Oak Park royalty, given the integral role he has played in our community over the past three decades. The list of organizations to which he has contributed his time and treasure is exhaustive, or at any rate exhausting, including District 97, West Suburban Medical Center, Opportunity Knocks, Infant Welfare Society, Oak Park Township, NAMI Chicago, the Austin African American Business Networking Association, and the Rotary Club of Oak Park-River Forest. This summer, he was installed as district governor of Rotary District 6450, an area encompassing 60 clubs from Chicago’s North Side to as far south as Kankakee.
But what many may not know is that Onayemi actually is royalty. He comes from a long line of Nigerian royals and political leaders. Born in Ijebu Ode, in southwest Nigeria, he is a descendant of the Awujale (King) of Ijebuland as well as Chief Timothy Adeola Odutola, a major figure in Nigerian society and culture. Chief Timothy was a great friend of King George VI of England and hosted Queen Elizabeth in his home when she visited Nigeria in 1956.
“My mother never let us forget that we were descended from royalty. She ingrained in us the importance of being engaged leaders in our community. She was a strict disciplinarian and a huge influence on our family,” he said.
Onayemi is the youngest of seven siblings. His father had a supervisory role in Nigeria’s postal system and the family moved frequently as he was transferred around the country. His mother was a teacher. Both were the first in their families to receive formal educations and they expected their children to do the same.
“My parents were the core of our community. Mother was very religious and conservative but open-minded. She was a student of the Bible, the Koran and the Talmud and she freely shared her knowledge with the community. She understood the connections between the Abrahamic religions and drilled into us the futility of fighting over the differences,” Onayemi said.
His father expected his children to serve as role models for their community and stressed the importance of representing the family in a positive way.
“He had two favorite sayings: When he thought we might be slipping off-track, he would say, ‘If you’re going to do that, you better change your name,’ and, to encourage our pursuit of success, he would say, ‘The bottom is full; you have to rise to the top.’”
Onayemi attended four elementary schools before enrolling in the prestigious American International School, with schoolmates representing more than 60 countries. He attended high school at the CMS (Church Missionary Society) School in Lagos, the oldest secondary school in Nigeria.
All of his siblings were college-educated and pursued professional careers — in fact, he insists that compared to several of his siblings, he’s been “dogging it.” His beloved brother, who recently died, was an anesthesiologist who at the age of 60 received his master of divinity degree and became a priest in the Anglican Church.
He came to the United States to pursue his college education, earning an architecture degree from the University of Illinois Chicago. His parents attended his graduation and convinced their homesick son to stay in the United States.
“Nigeria was under a military dictatorship at the time and corruption was something that my parents couldn’t abide. My oldest brother, a highly placed engineer with the Nigeria’s Electric Power Authority, was threatened with assassination because he refused to be corrupted,” he said.
Today, Onayemi is president of Urban Resource Inc., an architectural firm that has been involved in several projects in Chicago. He has lent his expertise to the construction of Oak Park’s two middle schools and the Park District’s Community Recreation Center.
As an actively engaged member of the Oak Park-River Forest Rotary Club for 17 years, he is excited about his new role as governor of District 6450 and looks forward to supporting its 60 individual clubs and their domestic and international service initiatives. He’s proud of the district’s response to the outbreak of war in Ukraine — organizing a campaign that raised more than $400,000 and sending 300 tons of medical supplies to the besieged country.
“Chicago is the birthplace of Rotary International. Founded in 1905, the Rotary played a significant role in the formation of the United Nations. We are all about bridging cultures by advancing peace through international training and service and developing young peace ambassadors,” he said.
Onayemi may be uniquely qualified for his new role with the Rotary. In addition to his international background — he has traveled all over the world and lived in Italy as well as Nigeria and the United States — he has an extended family of international marriages that he refers to as a “United Nations melting pot.” He is very proud that two of his grandchildren are Rotary Interactors, a service club for 12- to 18-year-olds.
Ade Onayemi embodies the African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” He has embraced it in Oak Park and now, through his expanded role with the Rotary, he is extending it to the world.