Stories of Giving
Jim Grant, first generation college student, establishes new scholarship
Jim Grant, the grandson of Polish immigrants and son of a carpenter and stay-at-home mom, grew up with extended family in a two-flat on Chicago’s south side. He knew there wouldn’t be much money for college, but he was certain of two things: he wanted to earn a college degree and he wanted to become a chemical engineer.
Not only would he go on to graduate from Illinois with a B.S. in Chemical Engineering in 1969, becoming the first in his family to obtain a college degree, but he would also earn three additional master’s degrees.
“My parents instilled in me and my siblings a lifelong desire to learn,” Grant said.
In his nearly 47-year career, he has worked with chemists in pharmaceutical process development and managed major environmental remediation and restoration projects. Today he oversees handling of hazardous waste for the Transportation Security Administration. His wife, Pam Grant, also the first in her family to receive a college education, is a graduate of the University of Illinois College of Communications (now the College of Media).
“My wife and I both owe so much to Illinois,” he said, citing dedicated professors and superb, affordable education. “We wanted to pass on that opportunity to today’s students,” Grant said.
He and Pam recently established the James K. Grant Scholarship to support undergraduates studying chemical engineering.
Putting his education to work
Although he doesn’t recall when he first heard about chemical engineering as a career option, “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a chemical engineer,” Grant said.
At Thornton Township High School in Harvey, he enrolled in college-preparatory classes and started planning for college. He spent his first year of college at the University of Pennsylvania, but transferred to the U of I his sophomore year.
“All the classes at Illinois were very challenging. The professors were outstanding,” said Grant, who had classes with Professors Thomas Hanratty, Charles Eckert, Harry Drickamer, and John Quinn. At the time, James Westwater chaired the department.
During his second year at Illinois, he joined Acacia Fraternity and met Pam. They married in 1969.
After graduation, he became a process engineer, and later a production supervisor, for Monsanto at one of its plants near St. Louis. But his work was not related to chemical engineering. About six years later, he switched companies to accept a position as a senior process engineer at Mallinckrodt, a major manufacturer of acetaminophen, radiopharmaceuticals, and laboratory chemicals. At Mallinckrodt, he worked with organic chemists and was involved in areas such as new drug processes.
“It was my dream job. I really did put my chemical engineering education to work,” he said.
Throughout the 1970s and early 80s, Grant continued to further his education, earning a master’s degree in chemical engineering from Washington University in St. Louis, a master’s degree in engineering management from the University of Missouri at Rolla, and a master’s degree in chemistry from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Meanwhile, his wife built a successful career in public relations and communications, working for corporations and government agencies.
In 1981, Grant was offered the position of manager of environmental affairs at Mallinckrodt. At that time, new environmental laws and regulations were being rolled out, with more to come. He was intrigued by the challenges the position offered, and he accepted. Later, he became director of environmental affairs and director of environmental remediation for the company, later known as Tyco Healthcare Mallinckrodt. Grant would manage a number of “legacy” projects in the region. During the Manhattan Project, when the U.S. was engaged in developing nuclear weapons, Mallinckrodt processed uranium until the 1950s. Grant worked with the U.S. Department of Energy and Army Corps of Engineers to evaluate and execute cleanups of these old sites throughout the St. Louis region.
In 2007, the Grants headed to the East Coast. Pam Grant continued to advance her career in communications, working for federal agencies and the White House. Jim Grant would join the Transportation Security Administration as Hazardous Materials Program Manager. He interfaces with regulators on handling hazardous waste that accumulates when passengers dispose of everything from butane lighters to distilled spirits at TSA checkpoints. His office works with 440 airports, including several outside the continental U.S.
Today the Grants remain in Washington, D.C. Pam now teaches communications at the University of Maryland, and their daughter, Darby Wade Grant, is a lawyer for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Since graduating from Illinois, Jim and Pam have stayed in touch with many of their classmates; among their group of friends from college, they counted 12 couples who have married and remain together. Jim skis, and is a member of the DC Sail Club, sailing on the Potomac River during the summers. He and Pam hold National Park passports and have enjoyed traveling to numerous national parks and historic sites.
In recent years Grant has had time to reflect on the education he received at Illinois and how it served him in his career.
“Coming from a blue collar family, I knew there would not be a lot of money coming from the family for college. I had to figure out how to pay for education.”
He’d work during the summers before and during college, in an electrical conduit factory, at a research laboratory, the Illinois State Water Survey, and later as house manager at his fraternity. A state scholarship helped cover about 20 percent of his tuition and he also took out some loans.
“I always wondered, what does a student do now?” Grant said. Students are still getting a bargain at the University of Illinois, but for many, especially first generation college students, paying for college is a major challenge, he said. “How do they make it? By taking out loans? That concerned me. What I wanted to do was set up a scholarship that could help them out.”
Grant said he is looking forward to attending the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering’s spring awards ceremony to meet the first scholarship recipient.
“Because of the University of Illinois and my education in chemical engineering, I was able to get a good job and work for good companies. My education served as an outstanding base for my career.”