First published in the Knox Magazine, December 1992
Al Young '69 was just an occasional art student at Knox College: he took only two art history classes, one of them an intro-level survey. But since his days as a student, this social studies teacher from Belleville, Illinois, has been a significant and steady -- even if largely unseen -- force on behalf of the visual arts at Knox.
"Most students know Al Young's name because he's given to the art department's annual competition," said Rick Ortner, associate professor of art. Young and other contributors provide a prize pool of more than $2,000 making it one of the richest undergraduate art shows in the nation.
"Students expect him to look like the financier J.P. Morgan," Ortner said. "But when he comes to campus for the show, they are shocked to meet a youthful and very modest sixth-grade teacher."
Young modestly admits that he came to Knox because his mother and father wanted him to. "My parents made the decisions, but it didn't bother me, because they were the right decisions."
Once at Knox, however, Young was not about to be pushed into anything. "Art professor Harland Goudie was my advisor as a freshman," Young recalls. "Of course, there's no one smarter than a freshman, and it wasn't until my junior year that I took an art course."
Young also had a student audiovisual job in the Fine Arts Center. There he became friends with art professor Isaac Peterson, who mentioned in passing one day that the department's annual student show needed a new sponsor.
Young was just a junior when he began contributing money for a prize in drawing, which he established in honor of his father, a stationery store owner who liked drawing. The annual event was named after Young in 1971, when he became its primary benefactor. For more than 20 years, Young has funded prizes in ceramics, drawing, painting, printmaking and photography. Several of the awards are named in honor of his parents, Albert G . Young and Anna Elisabeth Young.
Outside evaluators -- often nationally recognized artists -- are brought to campus to judge the show.
The show also provides a venue for the awarding of other endowed prizes in art. Sculpture awards are supported by artist Beverly Bender '40; a drawing prize is endowed by Marie Maltby Gunther '36, in memory of her grandson, Matthew Dale Gunther; and the Isaac O. Peterson Studio Award is funded by former students to memorialize the long-time Knox art professor.
"The important thing about Al is that while he was still a student, he took on a responsibility to the school," Ortner said. "It's not the amount of Al's gift, it's the reliability of his support." At Homecoming 1992 in October, the College presented Young with a Knox Service Award, in recognition of his sponsorship of the show and his support for other special projects by art students and senior art majors.
The impact of the Al Young Show far transcends the students, who gain both monetary awards and individual critiques from renowned visiting artists. "The show gives a focus to every academic year," Ortner said. "We can step back, as a department, and ask 'What have we accomplished?'"
In addition, the first place awards are purchase prizes, and the works join Knox's permanent collection. The show is also a high-profile happening. Hundreds of pots, paintings, prints, photos and more sprawl through the Gallery and into the lobby of the Eleanor Abbott Ford Center for the Fine Arts.
Whether by chance or by design, the site of the Al Young Show is a popular indoor shortcut to and from campus athletic facilities. "It continues to surprise me how many people go through the Gallery," Ortner said. "The show touches so many students who have never taken a single art course."
Editor's Note: After Al Young's death in 1993, the prize fund for the Al Young Show has been supported by gifts from his sister, Ann A. Young '68. In an obituary in the Knox Magazine, Knox professor Rick Ortner noted Al Young's enthusiasm for the art show was coupled with deep humility. "When the awards were announced, Al didn't join the other dignitaries at the front of the Gallery. Instead, he made himself as inconspicuous as possible by standing in the back of the crowd." Young's colleagues at Roosevelt School in Belleville praised his contributions to school and community. "He was the cornerstone of Roosevelt School and his passing is a great loss for the children in our district and for his many friends."