UI at 150 and Beyond: 'Earl Neal never let us down'

UI at 150 and Beyond: 'Earl Neal never let us down'

New among the 1,664 alumni stories you'll find at uofi150.news-gazette.com: a tribute to a pioneering University of Illinois trustee, from a Chicago attorney and member of the UI Class of 1980.

Little did GRAHAM GRADY (left) know what — or who — awaited him when he was elected a student representative to the UI's board of trustees.

Let's just say that all that's happened in the four decades since — the Windy City law practice, the stint as CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority, the seats on the boards of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the city's public library and parks foundations — were all influenced by that one-year term in 1979-80.

"People frequently reflect upon the impact a particular person has had upon their life," Grady says.

For him, that person was the late, great EARL NEAL.

"At that time, Mr. Neal was completing his 12-year tenure as a trustee. He had served with distinction and, among other things, was the first African-American to serve as chair of the U of I board. Mr. Neal led the board with strength, poise, character and, when circumstances called for it, a bit of humor as well.

"I remember my first event as student trustee. I had a huge Afro, at least 6 inches high. I also sported a goatee.

"My appearance was off-putting to many of the older, white trustees, as many of them were not accustomed to being around people who looked like me.

"Well, to smooth my transition onto the board, Mr. Neal told the other trustees that he knew my parents from Sunday school at a church in Chicago years earlier, that I was from a good family and that 'underneath all of that hair' was a fine young man who would be an addition to the board.

"It worked. With that introduction, I had instant credibility with the other trustees.

"In the context of the times, Mr. Neal faced discrimination as a student in 1945. The Jim Crow era was alive and well. Upon arriving in Champaign, Mr. Neal and his father went to a restaurant and ordered some hamburgers. When the food arrived, it was in a paper bag. The message was clear: you can buy food here, but you cannot eat in this restaurant.

"It's amazing that he even bothered to give back to the university later in life in view of the treatment he received as a student. But magnanimity was part of his character.

"At the memorial service for Mr. Neal in 2005, Chicago Mayor RICHARD M. DALEY provided a eulogy stating, 'Earl Neal never let us down.'

"Mayor Daley praised Mr. Neal for all he had done for the city, dating back many years.

"In a sense, I am still learning from Earl Neal even today. I am grateful to the University of Illinois for affording me the opportunity to know Mr. Neal and to learn from him.

"It was an unexpected and highly valuable part of my education."

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