‘A great legacy for the students at this school to uphold’
The following is a transcription of the remarks Faith Julian made at the dedication ceremony for the BASE Camp mural in honor of her father, Dr. Percy Julian. A video of her speech is below.
I’m so happy to be here. You have no idea. I spent four months in the hospital and rehab. My surgeon said he didn’t know if I would ever walk again. Well here I am. To be alive and to be here this evening walking. It is still a challenge, but I keep trying.
This beautiful mural. The students went to BASE camp to learn science and hone their artistic skills so that they could create a masterpiece with the help of Tracy Van Duinen, a prominent muralist and educator. He gave his talent and artistic expertise to this project. Now, the outside of this building is adorned with this wonderful mural. This beautiful tribute to my father. Let’s give the students and Mr. Van Duinen a round of applause.
Certain thanks are in order. Thanks to the OPEF who spearheaded this project. Thanks to the principal of Julian, Dr. Todd Fitzgerald for supporting this enterprise. And thanks for the community of Oak Park for purchasing pieces of mosaic tile which went into the mural. I understand they raised over $10,000 from the purchase of tiles. I would also like to thank Jim Taglia, my neighbor and friend from the Village Board of Trustees. A couple of weeks ago I was lamenting to Jim that the Wednesday Journal reported no more tiles were left to purchase. So, he reached out to Tracy Barber, the executive director of the Oak Park Education Foundation and the foundation kindly donated a tile on my behalf, which I dedicated to my parents. I thank them for that gift. Ms. Marta Segal Block, who is the director of communications for the foundation, called me and extended a gracious invitation to attend this evening and speak. And I am so honored to be here.
The last time I spoke at this school was at the re-dedication ceremony in October, 2002. It was when the school transitioned from a junior high school to a middle school. I share a special kinship with the school; after all, we share the same last name.
About a month ago I was in a taxi cab that went down Ridgeland Avenue. I caught a glimpse of the mural, as yet unfinished. I saw the words “go farther.” I remembered that those words were from a poem entitled “The Seventh Fold,” by Donald Adams. It is a poem that my dad learned to love in his waning years, six to seven years prior to his death.
It is about a man who is trying to find a huge hill and the ground beneath him is swampy and treacherous. At the top of this hill he can look upon distances that dropped away, fold upon fold. The distances beckon him but he is hesitant because he wants to know what waits for him beyond that seventh fold. The poem ends with the climber saying to himself, take heart, go father on. My father loved this poem because in many ways it symbolized his own personal struggle and the uncertainty as to what might lie ahead. But my dad was a man who would never give up, as Reader’s Digest once characterized him. In his unfailing determination a voice whispered to him “take heart, go farther on.”
My father was among many things, a dreamer. He dreamt about the outcome of atoms shifting positions, or traveling the secret pathways of electrons, spinning about their orbits. He dreamt about world peace as well as the eradication of racism and the brotherhood of man. In his wildest imagination however, he never would have dreamt that Oak Park would erect a middle school that would bear his name. He would have been so proud of this school.
At one point, my dad thought of being a musician. He played the piano and the saxophone. At another time he toyed with the idea of being an actor. His father nixed both of these ideas. Actually, my dad would have been a great actor. He was a natural born actor. He was extremely dramatic and a great orator and a great poet. I used to tell him he was a genius, but he always said that wasn’t true. Somehow or other, he always used to easily find a solution for everything. Sometimes he would know what I was doing when he wasn’t even looking at me and I said, “Daddy, how do you know that, how do you know what I’m doing?” He would answer “I have eyes in the back of my head.” Then I would search the back of his scalp to find these extra eyes, of course, to no avail.
When he was in the seventh grade he decided he wanted to be a chemist. In his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, he climbed a fence and peered into the window of a high school chemistry class at a white high school. A police officer yanked him off the fence, admonishing him never to go there again. After that day, dreams of test tubes danced in his head and dreams of being a chemist were born.
When my dad finished eighth grade, there was no public high school that African Americans could attend. According to Alabama law, his education was complete. As a result of his educational deficiencies, when he entered DePauw University he was classified as a sub freshman, which meant he had to carry his college courses along with the high school classes in which he was deficient. Yet, he still managed to graduate valedictorian of his class. Now, tell me he wasn’t a genius?
When my dad went off to college, three generations of hope went with him to the train station. There was his 99-year-old great grandmother who had once picked a record 350 pounds of cotton in one day. There was his grandfather, waving a hand from which two fingers were missing, the penalty for a slave for learning to write. And there were his parents. Seeing them all there that day served as a reminder to my dad of the wrongs of slavery and strengthened his resolve and determination to achieve.
My father thought that his academic honors would win him admission to the best schools, such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton. Instead, the top schools sent letters to his dean at DePauw with virtually the same theme. The letters went something like this, “Please discourage your bright young Negro lad from pursuing a graduate degree. There is no future for Negros in chemistry. Encourage him to go south and teach at a Negro college. He doesn’t need a Phd to do that.”
My father was not daunted by racism. In fact, it raised its ugly head many times throughout his life. Consider his arrival at DePauw University as an incoming freshman. He had to walk the streets for three days before he could find anyone who would serve him food. Despite the fact that his room and board had been paid just like any other student. Consider also his travels to Appleton, Wisconsin in 1950 to introduce to the paper industry there a product he had discovered, only to be thrown out of the inn because when admitting him in the dim light the night before the clerk told him, “I thought you were an East Indian, but when you came into breakfast, we saw you were a Negro, so you’ll have to check out.”
Consider also that while employed as an executive and traveling to Michigan and Wisconsin for a period of 10 years, he had to sleep in his car on the average of a dozen times per year because he could not find hotel accommodations. He traveled to Mexico four or five times. He would always have to stop in Dallas, Texas and go through customs. As late as 1965 there was a sign over the only bathroom “For whites only.” My father eventually wrote American Airlines to complain and, lo and behold, the next time he went, the sign had been taken down.
Consider also, my father’s initial greeting upon moving here to Oak Park. My parents’ pioneering spirit and dedication to the belief that people had the right to live wherever they choose helped them survive the bombing of our home and the attempted arson that threatened our lives. It made national news. Frightening as it was, my parents were determined to stay. They were forced to maintain a guard for three years because they couldn’t get police protection. The list of discrimination which my father faced goes on. Racism however did not paralyze him or keep him from dreams or believing in himself.
My father was a staunch believer in education and the pursuit of excellence, in developing every fiber of potential in one’s being and in doing one’s very best. A story he liked to tell, because it set a standard for his own children, occurred when he was a youngster. He was bursting with pride as he hurried home from grade school in Montgomery. He had scored an 80 on an arithmetic test. He waved the paper proudly in front of his father. His father’s response was startling and instructive. “A son of mine must not be satisfied with mediocrity. After this, make it 100.”
My father left a legacy of scientific achievement. He had over 150 patents. I would like to tell you about a few of them. My dad was known as “the soybean chemist.” My father achieved unprecedented acclaim for his low-cost synthesis of cortisone. He made it from soybeans, and later from a wild yam that grew in Guatemala. Prior to his synthesis, cortisone was obtained from the bile of oxen and it cost hundreds of dollars a drop. It was so expensive that only the very rich could afford it. With my dad’s synthesis, it became easily affordable at pennies a drop and became widely available to people who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, lupus, allergies, multiple sclerosis and other inflammatory conditions. In fact, cortisone and its derivatives are the best anti-inflammatory agents on the market today.
My dad synthesized a drug used initially to treat the eye disease called glaucoma. Today, it is used to treat Alzheimer’s. He also synthesized, again from soybeans, the sex hormones progesterone and testosterone. Progesterone was used to prevent women from a miscarriage and later went into the first birth control pill that went on the market in the early 1960s.
He developed a fire-fighting foam, fondly referred to as “Navy Bean Soup,” which was used in World War II to put out gasoline and oil fires on ships and airplanes and saved countless lives.
He synthesized lecithin and from soybean protein he developed a process to coat and size paper and textiles and create cold water paints. He took the lumps out of Hershey’s chocolate to make it smooth and creamy and he did the same for oleo margarine. He took sausage casings and stuffed them with soy protein and sent them to Great Britain in World War II for soldiers.
In his latter years my dad developed liquid crystals, which are materials that when liquified, diffract light and change colors similar to the effect one sees when a prism turns. Liquid crystals went in to the popular mood rings of the 1970s. If you had a ring and it turned blue you were in a good mood. If it turned red, you were angry and so forth. Crystals are used in medical equipment neon lights and display advertising and digital thermometers, radios, televisions. In fact, you may have an LCD television at home. That LC stands for liquid crystals.
My dad synthesized Vitamin D3. It was injected into turkeys and chickens to keep them healthy and from developing a bone disease that results from a lack of Vitamin D. My dad said that feather birds cannot absorb the sunshine vitamin because of their feathers. So, by injecting them with Vitamin D3 they can be fat and healthy. If he had only known how Vitamin D3 has become the go-to vitamin among humans. I think it’s important to remember that all of these variable compounds my dad synthesized he did so in order to help people and make the world a little better, not to make money, although that was a welcome byproduct.
My dad has left a great legacy for the students at this school to uphold. My father was a humanitarian as well as a scientist. He believed in a liberal arts education. He believed the humanities are as important as the sciences because through them, man learns to live harmoniously with his fellow men.
My father was a great and enthusiastic gardener. He loved flowers and spent the early morning hours in his garden planting. He once planted 10,000 tulips by himself. Gardening was his main source of relaxation and exercise. He was a naturalist. On a walk through the woods he could name almost every tree by the shape and color of the leaves. Once, when he brought into the house a beautiful bouquet I remember that he remarked, “Why can’t human beings of all colors live and thrive together just as flowers do.”
My father would ask you to remember that through all ones’ sorrows in life, there breathes a hope, a faith in the ultimate justice of things. Sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls, and not their skins. Your school is a testimony to that fact. In naming the school after Percy Julian, the grandson of slaves, the Oak Park Board of Education honored an American ideal, that a man is to be judged by his mind, his spirit and the content of his character, not the color of his skin. The students at this school are indeed America’s future, you have so much to look forward to and so much to give. Without a doubt, life will hold some disappointments, but I hope you will always remember that for every cloud, there is a ray of light; for every point of note there is a chord of joy. For every ounce of human evil there is a ton of human good.
To the students here today, my father’s message would be that no matter what obstacles face you in life, dare to overcome them. Dare to dream. Dare to believe in yourself. Do your best at whatever you undertake. Maintain excellence in your studies. Make yourself proud. Make your school proud.
If my dad were speaking to the students today, he would stress the importance of integrity. He would have emphasized the importance of moral character. He would have said there are some things that are everlastingly right and some things everlastingly wrong, and there can be no compromise between the two.
He would have reminded you that all of his life he fought injustice and inequality. He would have pondered with you the question of how soon may we in America represent one people. He would have told you that unless we can come to know each other better there will never be racial peace in our borders. But, he would have noted that there are Americans willing to join hands with us as brothers true and build a strife-torn land anew.
He would have been inspired by the hope which you represent. He would have wanted you to remember that there are other people over your mountain, and he would have challenged you to keep the flame burning.
Please visit us soon for more photos of this amazing event. You can learn more about the mosaic here.
Photo Credit: Marcela Rafea