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Gwen and Jules F. Knapp awarded the University of Chicago Medal

May 15 , 2007

On May 4, 2007, the University of Chicago awarded Gwen and Jules F. Knapp the University of Chicago Medal. Established in 1976 by President John T. Wilson, the University of Chicago Medal recognizes distinguished service of the highest order to the University by an individual or individuals over an extended period of time. The medal is awarded by the trustees of the University and is among the highest honors bestowed by the University. In a ceremony culminating the fifth annual daylong celebration Chicago Convenes, the Knapps became the thirteenth and fourteenth individuals to receive the Medal. “To act as partners with a great University in order to help people is a tremendous honor,” Mr. Knapp said.

The Knapps’ transformational gifts to the University’s Biological Sciences Division and Medical Center are making possible critical research that will revolutionize the understanding and treatment of some of the most devastating human diseases — and potentially eradicate them. Giving to help others is a fundamental value for the Knapps, stemming in great part from their faith and their fidelity to the core Judaic principle of tzedakah, a sacred obligation in the Jewish faith to help others through charitable giving and service. Because the Knapps hold this obligation in the highest seriousness, “we have always been philanthropists,” says Mrs. Knapp, “if not always on a grand scale. This is part of our Jewish heritage.” Their commitment to tzedakah has inspired the Knapps to give widely to causes including the Jewish Children’s Bureau, Merit School of Music, Northwestern University, and Students in Free Enterprise.

The Knapps have also been moved to help others by their strong dedication to family. Their daughter Joy Faith’s years-long struggle against lupus and her eventual loss to the disease have been influential in directing a great share of the Knapps’ generosity to medical research that has the promise to prevent, treat, and cure immunological diseases like lupus. “Maybe we can help some other people with our giving,” says Mr. Knapp, “and they won’t have to suffer as we have suffered losing our daughter.”

Gwen and Jules Knapp are lifelong Chicagoans, raised on the northwest side and near the University on the south side of the city, respectively; they now live in the nearby suburb of Glencoe and in Stuart, Florida. “My mother was a great influence in my life,” Mr. Knapp says, “and she dreamed of me going to the University of Chicago. Receiving the University Medal is beyond any of her expectations.” The close ties that Mr. Knapp eventually would form with the University were for the time deferred as he attended college at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and began his career selling paintbrushes.

The Knapps met and married in 1956. During their early marriage, Mrs. Knapp worked as an elementary school teacher while Mr. Knapp, after returning from service in the Korean War, turned from selling paintbrushes to manufacturing paint. With his brother he co-founded the paint company United Coatings, Inc. In 1994, United Coatings merged with Buffalo-based Pratt & Lambert, and two years later was sold to Sherwin-Williams. Mr. Knapp sold his stock in the company following the sale and moved on to a new phase of his career, purchasing Grisham Manufacturing in 2000 and turning around the struggling maker of custom steel security doors.

At home the Knapps were raising three daughters. After Joy Faith was diagnosed with lupus in 1981, Mrs. Knapp became a tireless activist and advocate on behalf of people suffering from the poorly understood autoimmune disorder. Her efforts proved a major impetus of the Knapps’ decision to make a groundbreaking gift to the University in 1991 on behalf of lupus and immunology research. The gift established the Gwen Knapp Center for Lupus and Immunology Research, housed in the Jules F. Knapp Medical Research Center. The Knapps’ vision was realized with the 1994 opening of the Center, which houses biochemists, cellular and molecular biologists, geneticists, and immunologists together in an interdisciplinary effort to discover new knowledge, treatments, and cures for immunological diseases.

The Knapps went on to establish the Gwen Knapp Symposium, a yearly conference for world-renowned scientists interested in lupus, and the Joy Faith Knapp Memorial Lecture on autoimmune disease. In 1996 the Knapps were named the first Honorary Fellows of the Biological Sciences Division in recognition of the important impact they had made on the future of medical science and their dedicated support of the University.

In 2006 the Knapps’ landmark gift of $25 million named the Jules and Gwen Knapp Center for Biomedical Discovery, a state-of-the-art facility for translational research at the interface of medicine and basic science. Slated to open in 2008, the building will be home to research that promises to revolutionize the understanding and treatment of cancer, pediatric diseases, and other disorders. “We have hope,” says Mrs. Knapp, “that in our children’s lifetimes some of these diseases will be defeated or their treatments will improve the quality of people’s lives….We hope that our gifts will advance science and the future health and benefit mankind.”


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Last modified at 11:09 AM CST on Monday, July 23, 2007

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