Artist John Oilar never attended Purdue but still exudes Boilermaker pride: He spent 28 years working for the University, and his family has deep ties.
“I’m glad that my family has been with Purdue the entire 150 years,” John said. “In fact, a couple of family members did preparatory work that enabled Purdue to be founded.”
John’s familial ties to Purdue trace back to Henry Oilar, a cousin of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln signed the Morrill Land-Grant Act in 1862, which created land-grant colleges such as Purdue.
Henry also served at Lafayette Square Schoolhouse as the first schoolteacher in Lafayette, John Oilar says. Another relative is Rozíer Dorr Oilar, a descendant of Lincoln, who graduated from the university in 1892 studying chemistry.
According to Purdue’s 1930 yearbook Debris, Rozíer was employed by the American Cotton Oil Co. and “has done considerable work in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture in standardizing several of the analytical methods.”
Rozíer installed oil plants across the U.S., Europe, Asia and South America, according to Purdue’s 1938 Debris. After retirement, he settled in West Lafayette, where his family farm was, and in 1961, his estate sold his house to the University.
John Norberg, retired journalist and author of “Ever True: 150 Years of Giant Leaps at Purdue University,” explained Purdue acquiring the Hills and Dales land was what made building Ross-Ade Stadium possible. The Oilars had owned the Hills and Dales land, although Norberg is unsure whether the family had owned all of the land.
Then, David Ross, a former chairman of the board of trustees, was pushing to build a new football field and wanted George Ade, a Purdue graduate and famous playwright, to help fund the stadium on the Hills and Dales land.
However, the land was under contract with Robert and Charles Shook, who owned a real estate agency, to be developed into a subdivision.
“So what Ross did was he bought the land on the other side of Northwestern Avenue, and that land is now Hills and Dales, and he swapped it with the Shooks,” Norberg explained.
Rozíer also established the Oilar Endowment that is now known as the Oilar-Woods Endowment. In the last 50 years, the endowment has aided hundreds of students who either cannot afford to get an education at Purdue or are family members of astronauts.
John and his wife, Diane Oilar, both worked in the Building Services Department for Purdue. Both were part of many university committees, including the Clerical and Service Staff Advisory and provost recommendation committees.
Many of John’s artwork is displayed in buildings across campus, he said. As a friend to many faculty members, his artwork is mostly displayed in private offices.
Since John was a child, he enjoyed drawing realistic art. Many of John’s artworks include sketches of Purdue’s buildings.
“It’s something about the architectural parts and the mechanical parts of Purdue that really seem to affect me quite a bit,” John said. “I can’t explain it.”
John said he works both from memory of the campus and from looking at photos.
“The arrangement part is memory and I use photos for the accuracy part, but I enhance a lot,” John explained.
His personal favorite building is University Hall, the only building left from John Purdue’s time. There are many legends about the building, because it is the oldest building on campus.
“They say ever so often John Purdue appears around University Hall,” John joked.
John explained that John Purdue’s desk used to be stored in the attic of the building and people would claim to hear someone pushing the desk across the floor. The desk is now kept in the Archives.
Even with seeing changes through the years, John said Purdue’s foundation remains the same.
“A great institution, quality education and people, it’s all still there,” John said. “It always will be, I think.”