Black Excellence: Kerl LaJeune
Kerl LaJeune, director of planning and design for the Public Building Commission of Chicago, has over 30 years of design and creative experience at leading architecture firms in Chicago. Mr. LaJeune holds a Bachelor of Architecture degree from UIC and serves as the UIC Alumni Board committee chair.
Mr. LaJeune’s projects range from higher education to commercial to multi-family residential and custom housing, many of which have won distinguished awards.
He has taught at three Chicago architectural institutions including the UIC School of Architecture, Illinois Institute of Technology and Archeworks. Over the years, Mr. LaJeune has been involved with and volunteered for community-based and non-profit organizations.
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Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to “Black Excellence” at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to “Black Excellence.”
Aisha El-Amin 00:33
Good afternoon. Good morning. Good evening. You’re joining us on our podcast today. I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin, associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging at the University of Illinois Chicago. We welcome you to our UIC Black Excellence podcast, where we have continued to listen to stories from the past of black excellence that have come through the doors and the hallways of UIC. I’m so honored today to be joined by Kerl LaJeune, who is a College of Architecture, Design and the Arts graduate from 1992 and who has been doing some phenomenal things since then. And so I just want to start off by letting Kerl tell us a little bit about himself, kind of where he’s from, and a little bit about himself as a person.
Kerl LaJeune 1:20
Thank you for that Aisha. My name is Kerl LaJeune and I graduated from UIC in 1992. I was a double degree major in architecture, focused on architectural design. And the second degree was in structural mechanics. Sometimes we call that structures or structural engineering. It’s always been in my mindset to focus on design to some degree, I was originally interested in engineering. Engineering was always my passion to kind of tinker and toy with things. I always paid attention to detail, that was always my thing, which I still do today, which is probably why I’m so organized. But really the idea of always wanting to find solutions to problems sort of migrated from being artistic to engineering and then eventually focusing on architecture, which then had a byproduct of engineering connected to it, which was great.
UIC was part of that process, coming in as an African American student. I am an immigrant from the Caribbean. I was born in Haiti and came to the United States at age 11. When I started high school, I continued through my academic endeavors and it was a foregone conclusion that the kids were going to go to college, there were no ifs, ands, or buts. So, we pushed forth and all four of us, me and my siblings, two of us, me and my sister went to UIC and my other two brothers went down to Champaign. We stayed relatively local, you know, funds and academic status are always something that we were conscious of. We couldn’t go to Ivy League schools because that was just way too much money. But nevertheless, we got a great education here at UIC. It’s a great local institution with a number of focuses, especially as a commuting campus where, you know, you can really reduce costs, focus less on transportation, and more on engaging with the city that has quite a bit to offer such as working with other students and also just dealing with the challenges of being an immigrant. You know, language challenges mean that you can’t expand as much as you can until you’re sort of connecting yourself a bit. And then, you know, working with folks at school. So I spent lots of time at school because I was pretty young. I started when I was 15 at UIC and my birthday went over in October and then I turned 16 in October. I think I came into the College of Engineering/LAS at the time. But really, education was extremely important to me because it was important to our family and making sure that advancement was at the top of everything, including sports, including all the other activities.
So in terms of family history, all four of us kids came to the states at the same time during the course of two summers to visit, in ’79 and ’80. We watched a lot of Sesame Street to get English as our third language. In Haiti, we have two primary languages, one Creole and the second French. So within the school walls, everyone speaks French, and all of the pedagogy and all of the teachings are all in French, but as soon as you walk out the door into the public, everything is in Creole, the markets, everyone walking outside. So we got used to multiple languages moving through. When we came to the states to visit, English being kind of a third language to work through wasn’t so bad. And we were just sort of easing into it. We also had some other languages in elementary because I went to seminary school and quite a very famous one that’s not just famous, but you know, a pretty large one in Haiti, and had also a little bit of Spanish, a little bit of German. And as a seminary school, we had Latin classes, because all of our theological classes were in Latin. That was pretty constant. But no one retains Latin. So it kind of came and went as part of that. But the family moved to the states together as kids. However, the parents were here prior to that, for a period of 10 years to establish their residency before bringing the kids. So you know, that was kind of traveling back and forth for my parents over the course of those 10 years, once to sometimes twice a year. And then the four kids were staying with aunts and uncles during that time. So that was a big sacrifice for advancement clearly that a parent or two parents would have to make in order for creating opportunities for their kids. And they did. And thankfully, for that, we are where we are now, in the states. We’ve all done well. I’m an architect and my oldest brother went for philosophy and then went to interior design and owns his business now. Focusing on my other brother in New York, he’s a surgical neurologist and has been doing it for 25 years. My sister went into chemistry at UIC and graduated and continued on to do some research, some R&D, and then really focused on other aspects of upper management and has been with Sears for a very long time. My youngest sister is teaching at the University of Chicago, teaching teachers to be teachers, which is sort of a very, very interesting kind of thing to focus on. But we’ve all pushed pretty hard to, you know, make it work as fast as we can and take any opportunities and work as a family to make it work. And, in a sense, create our own history here in the states. So that’s a little bit about myself and my family.
Aisha El-Amin 7:19
That is such a rich history. And I mean, you are, your whole family is embedded in the UI system. And I know that you’re, you’re part of the alumni board and association. I’ve just heard very fond things about you. Why why did you choose to continue at UIC in that capacity and continue to stay involved as an alumnus?
Kerl LaJeune 7:40
Yeah, you know, the fact that UIC is a state institution and it tries to and continues to, you know, focus on the community. The sort of economic disparities that is quite often either forgotten about certainly was forgotten about in the 90’s, when I was here, trying to make that connection. There was something really humble about UIC as a campus. You could be yourself and you could connect to people. It was sort of down-to-earth. It didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, I was in a huge university where I couldn’t connect.’ That aspect of it, making it feel like it’s a second home, made it possible to want to be a part of it, to do more, to engage more. So as a student, I was engaging in some small groups, about what was going on on campus, but really, when I became an alumnus was when I tapped into some leadership opportunities and roles, one of which was the Alumni Association, connecting back not just with the school but the college. We had an Alumni Association College of Architecture, Design and the Arts and I was able to engage and eventually become president for a few terms. And then I got involved at the campus level on the College Advisory Board. I was there for many, many years. Then I continued on to the board of the full Alumni Association, which includes Chicago, Peoria, Champaign and Springfield, and their big board of directors. So we fall in line right underneath the board of trustees. And that’s the opportunity, to advocate for the full university system. So it wasn’t just U of I. It wasn’t just UIC. It wasn’t just Springfield. It was about the University of Illinois, and being able to take all of those experiences and backgrounds certainly taking on my alma mater UIC, to make sure that we’re represented in the conversations about alumni. So it’s not just fundraising for Champaign. It’s also fundraising for UIC and fundraising for all others. And having a university and campus like UIC, that is really localized in its public really makes being a part of it that much better.
Aisha El-Amin 10:10
Yes. Yeah. Now from the eyes of a 15-year-old. First of all, I have to say that that is amazing. I’m in awe of you to be at UIC as a 15-year-old. As you look back at that time, what are some of the fondest memories that you hold?
Kerl LaJeune 10:35
You know, some of them are not so pretty, I remember spending lots of time in the arcade because that was my closest connection. And maybe that was a point of isolation for me, that works really well, where you can escape from the studies and you can escape from the socialization, you get to escape from the rigor, and just go to the arcade and play games. And that activity was quite therapeutic. So I’ll admit that I’m not quite sure that that’s a positive, fond memory. But absolutely, it’s a fond memory. Knowing how to even just get the gaze of the very few African Americans that were on campus is a fond memory, because, you know, we’re surrounded by Caucasians. I think at the time, there was a moderate percentage of Asian students, a moderate percentage of Hispanic students, and a very low percentage of African Americans. You know, we’re talking about 1987 — actually, it’s actually 1984 because I had spent two years in the College of Engineering before going to architecture, which is a five-year program — that you realize that what’s far and few is really what you end up connecting more with versus the opposite, right? You would think that, okay, I would connect much more with the Caucasian students, which I did to some degree, but it wasn’t the same as the African American students that were around. In our program, in our architecture program, there were five out of maybe a potential graduating class of 80 students. So we talked about really, really small numbers. You know, I do as an architect, remember the campus, the fond memory of the elevated walks and the limestone that is all around, you know, you cannot remember circle campus without remembering the walks. And as an architect, we talked a lot about how the campus was designed, and Walter Netsch and what he brought to the campus and his ideas, which was really sort of brutalist architecture. But it talks about, you know, protection and safety and, you know, putting priority on the students on campus and less kind of the outside world that was effectively tumultuous around the time.
But those things are all the things that I absolutely remember and in fact, the walks. One Thanksgiving, or right before Thanksgiving, it was the week before, UIC had a five-kilometer run on campus. They started at the Science, Engineering Building on Taylor Street. And they went up on the walks all the way around to University Hall and they came back to the same spot. When I ran it that year, I ended up winning my age group. The prize for winning your age group was a big turkey. So there I am, this is probably my third year at UIC. So as you know, I’m 19 or 20 years old. I have this gargantuan turkey in my hand, and I take it home to my mom. I said, ‘Mom, I won this turkey from doing a race.’ And she immediately looks at me said, ‘Where did you get the turkey from?’ I said, ‘Well, I won it in a race.’ She says, ‘No, you didn’t, where’d you get that turkey from?’ So it took a little convincing for my mom to accept the fact that I, yes, I was a runner, number one; and two, I participated in a race; and three, I won my age group and got a turkey. So we ended up cooking that delicious turkey for Thanksgiving, which was quite a bit for all of us. So that is an amazingly fun memory that has nothing to do with academics, but it was a pure, fun engagement, enjoyment, and experience of the campus in a different way.
Aisha El-Amin 14:36
I mean, that’s what college is, it’s not just about academics, right? And I think it’s really funny as I listen and kind of look at your history, how many things change and how many things don’t. Now we’re one of the most diverse campuses in the nation as a Hispanic serving, a minority serving, Asian and Pacific Islander serving institution. Also, you are a runner still, right? You know, and maybe you can talk a little bit about that. I know, you know, I’m also a runner. I’m not as good during the pandemic, I must admit. But I’m wondering as you talk about the kind of architecture and the memory of that, how that impacts you now in that role where you’re designing other spaces if that has influenced you.
Kerl LaJeune 15:30
Yeah, you know, running has been part of my life for a long, long, long time. And when I was in elementary school at the seminary, we had a soccer team and I was on a soccer team at that time. I was a goalie and then became kind of a forward, mid-striker because running was really in my blood. But when I moved to the states, sports was not a priority. In fact, when I started UIC I wanted to start a team. But I was a little small, right? If you think 15 or 16 with a bunch of college kids, I just wouldn’t make it right? So I waited a few years. And then when I was really interested it was right before I entered the School of Architecture. And I played over the summer and went to all the practices. Then I made the team and then the team said, well, our practices are two days a week, Wednesdays and Fridays, at one o’clock and I, said wait a minute, my architectural classes, the studio starts at one o’clock. So I had to make a choice. Clearly, my choice was academics. So I forgot about joining the UIC varsity soccer team and just went with my academics.
But as a result, I ended up then continuing with my running endeavors outside of school. So I started to do 5k races separately, I started to do 10k races separately, I started to bicycle quite a bit more and then was doing at the time what they call biathlons. They’re now duathlons because the proper Olympic sport of triathlon is ski shooting and skiing, which the Scandinavians do amazingly well. So I started to do that and duathlons and then got into some more running and then eventually got into marathon running. I started in 2000, in Chicago. There were some friends that were really pushing me to get in and do it, saying ‘You’re an athlete, you’ve been running, you can do a marathon, it’s no big deal.’ This is at a time when we thought that in a marathon you could die because everyone thought like, why would you want to do that? Unless you’re being chased by a town then you must run a marathon, so then in 2000, they convinced me. But really, what convinced me to run was the fact that the marathon that year in 2000, was on my birthday, October 22. So I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to do it.’ It’s gonna be me and another 40,000 people celebrating at the same time, you can’t beat that kind of party. So I trained during that summer. And then I ran the marathon. I had a great time and was very excited about it.
And then I became part of a group of individuals that shared an interest that clearly was important to all of them. And they became important to me, you know, to focus on health, to focus on socializing with others, to have an opportunity to look at a task that is consistent, and that is good for you. But also, the scenery that’s involved with it as an architect now was kicking in, because I was the manual labor to make sure that that happened, that those experiences happen, even though the majority of the runs were on the lakefront. But the marathon offers you an amazing glimpse of Chicago and its neighborhoods because it runs through every single one of them, although being further east, it really gives you an amazing slice of the city. Starting from downtown you work your way up north through various neighborhoods, seeing the energy, seeing the typologies, seeing the different housing stock, and the different sets of commercial businesses that are on the streets. You even see the different things that people are wearing around the city between the north side or you go to Chinatown, you see something different you go through Pilsen, you see what’s going on. And all of the neighborhoods are not necessarily trying to show off each other. They just really want to say ‘This is our neighborhood.’ This is what we want you to experience these are the parts about it that sets us not in contradiction to others but just different from everybody else. So you know, you go to Boystown and there the music is pumping, and they’re dressed and they’re dancing. You go to Pilsen and they’re serving oranges, which is a little bit different than most other places, they’re serving bananas and avocados. Not that you want to eat that while you’re running. But you know, avocados are served. And you go to Chinatown, and now the interest of drums and beads and the dragons and the colorfulness kind of really gives you an out-of-body experience while you’re running in pain. But now you’re not thinking about that, you’re thinking about all these wonderful experiences that are around you. And you just worked through all of that through all of the city.
So one of the things that I have done, after about five or six marathons, I started to pace the Chicago Marathon. A pacer is someone that has a specific time that they’re starting and finishing on, we’re maintaining that same pace per mile, for the entire race. We all have a little stick in our hands that says the pace we’re running. And we have a jersey and everything else. And I did that for 12 years in a row. And during the 12 years, I can tell you every inch of the marathon course. And one of the things that I do a lot is talk about the neighborhoods, talk about the architecture. And it’s really to tell folks, ‘pay attention to what’s around you and to be present when you are running because it’s much more than exercise. It is an experience that you are a part of.’ So running has been a part of me heavily since 2000. I’ve been coaching as a marathon coach for the last 14 years now, with Chicago endurance sports. I’m currently the president of the Chicago Area Runners Association, which is CARA. I’m involved in a community, the idea is to focus on health, to focus on wellness, use running as a sport and make it accessible to the community. I’m doing a lot of that work with CARA doing runs in a park district that we put together for free with the park district to get the grandmas, and the kids, and the adults, to come out and run. So that’s what I push, for now, more about general health access to the community.
Aisha El-Amin 22:15
Well, you had me at you’re telling them about the neighborhoods as you’re running, because I’m not talking [when I run]. That’s pretty amazing. And so obviously, service is a huge part of who you are as well. I mean, the Alumni Association, you know, Chicago Area Runners Association, and you have this whole business and job and all these other things. So I think that is huge. That says a lot about you. And I think our students can see themselves in your story.
Kerl LaJeune 22:52
I think that’s part of being at UIC, that’s different than if I was at a private institution. Knowing that when you are at a private institution, the focus, you know, is more about money and grants and prestige. And not that UIC doesn’t have that or doesn’t focus on that. It’s just not their priority, right? There are so many other priorities. But especially in the last, you know, 10 to 15 years, you know, focusing on access, focusing on diversity, and looking at service as an important aspect, you know, connecting people together, both on a student level but also on the alumni level, getting faculties to be engaged with not just academia but also this plethora of professionalism. That’s right outside our door downtown and all around us is what UIC provides. It’s very different even than the other campuses, right? Champaign doesn’t have that kind of a resource next to it. Springfield does, but it’s really focused, right? It’s legislative, it’s you know, that sort of aspect. But service absolutely is important to me. And I spent, you know, 26 or 27 years in the private sector. And where I am employed now is with the Public Building Commission of Chicago, which focuses on the development of projects for city agencies like the Chicago Public Library, police stations, and the Chicago Fire Department.
Chicago Public Schools is the major client I’ve been focusing on as a practice leader from K to 12th grade. So all of the new annexes to elementary schools, all of the new high schools, and all the new elementary schools have all been what I’ve been focusing on for the last nine years. So service that has come back kind of slightly differently. The PBC was set up and developed by Mayor Daley—the dad I can’t remember which initial he is—in about 1956. The Daley Center was the first building built in Chicago by the PBC and then a number of others have been since. The Harold Washington Library was done by the PBC, and the Chinatown library about five years ago was done by the PBC. So that is kind of a return back to service because being in the public sector, it’s not about the profit, and we’re developing all of these on behalf of the mayor. So it’s not about a profit margin, it is about the end user and making sure that the kids in the schools are seeing the benefits of great design, great architecture, up-to-date equipment, and bringing the oldest schools up to snuff. And that’s all in the name of service because the private sector doesn’t look at it that way. Right? So I’m quite happy and honored to be in that capacity as a director of planning and design, and it’s been fun. It’s been fun.
Aisha El-Amin 25:52
Well, I am just in awe of you the more that I talk to you. And so as we round off this interview, can you offer some words of advice for current, Black UIC students who are, you know, trying to find their way and get to the space that you are in now?
Kerl LaJeune 26:12
Yeah, I mean, it’s always a challenge, as you know, as a Black student looking to kind of make your way through this process. And I call it a process because there are a number of things that are impacting what you do. And then for me, there’s a process that you have to go through. Don’t think that it’s anything negative to have to be better than everybody else, because part of making it is to think that you can be better than everybody else, right to strive.
And so, I would say that competition is wonderful and healthy. It is not intended to be confrontational, it’s intended to be a drive that helps you to move on to the next level. So think of your life that way, that it’s a very competitive opportunity to excel in sports, to excel in academics to excel in your chosen profession. To even excel socially, right, the idea of being engaged with individuals does require drive because it’s not going to happen by itself. So thinking that you’re always looking for the next best thing or to try and be of service in some way, is part of the challenges of being a Black student because the challenges out there have existed for a long time and they will continue to exist. The best thing we can do is recognize that those challenges are there but to find different ways to circumnavigate those challenges and be better and grow and help others and have others help you. I know the number of Black students has increased tremendously at UIC. But it’s still not enough, right? You’re always going to say, you’re going to look around and you’re going to see that your representation is not as it should be. Don’t let that bother you. Continue to do what you do. And eventually you yourself will make a mark, and others will follow those steps and become a part of it as well.
Aisha El-Amin 28:09
Well, thank you so much, Mr. LaJeune, and I appreciate you being part of the rich, rich history of Black excellence at UIC and for paving the way.
Kerl LaJeune 28:21
Thank you very much, I appreciate it, and I am happy to be here.
Tariq El-Amin 28:25
Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alum, faculty and staff and blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.