By Bob Burrows, April 1993
Whitewater's new public library has been named for Irvin L. Young (1897-1976), a humanitarian and philanthropist whose inventive genius and business talents led to the establishment of a considerable fortune which has been largely dedicated to the establishing and support of mission hospitals and clinics throughout central Africa.
A man with a clear sense of purpose, the dedication of his life to Christian missions in Africa, his ability to make money so impressed faculty members at McMormick Theological Seminary and Dr. John Timothy Stone, pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, that he was encouraged to devote his energies to his business enterprises in the United States in order to send the bulk of the profits to the mission work in Africa, serving, Dr. Stone urged, a "substitutionary stewardship."
Irvin Young's lifelong dedication to that work was remarkable. Born in Milwaukee, he was one of six children in a family with little income because the father, a railroad workman, was afflicted with poor health. Beginning work as a newsboy at age 7, he dropped out of high school because he didn't have shoes. But his desire for education was so strong that he eventually attended Lake Forest College, Northwestern University, and McCormick Seminary. Though he took no degrees, his appreciation for these institutions led him eventually to give generously to all of them, especially Lake Forest, where he endowed a professorship, and at both Lake Forest and McCormick he created significant endowed scholarships.
His wealth came from his inventions and the companies which he established to develop and use them. Among the first undertakings was the creation of sophisticated printing presses capable of one color print on one side and multicolor on the opposite in a single operation. Then came the development of machines for making tags and labels, widely used in the meat packing industry, and machines for affixing wires to bags. He developed the machines for mounting slides in cardboard cases, Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York being his largest customer.
By the early forties he had established the Atlas Tag Company and the American Label Company, with factories in Chicago, Neenah, and in Canada and Mexico. Machines which he invented turned out tags, tickets, bottle caps, matches, match books, seals, and manifold systems. While his companies were turned over to others for active management, he concentrated on the work he found most engrossing - the development of new machines in the workshop of the Young Engineering Company which he moved to Palmyra in the early 50's. There, among many machines, he designed and developed an interaction chamber for use in laser research in arthritis and dermatology. This machine, along with a gift of $75,000, was donated to UW-Stevens Point for use by their researchers.
But throughout his career, Irvin Young never lost sight of his primary interest - the development and support of Christian medical mission activities in Africa. He had spent three years there in the late 20's, going out to Cameroon to set up a printing plant for mission activities. He returned home only when convinced that he could be of greater assistance through his ability to finance mission operations.
He gave himself single-mindedly to that mission, living a Spartan life, devoting 60 hours a week to his work, and never taking a vacation. Early he set up the Irvin L. Young Foundation and to that foundation the bulk of his income was given, year by year.
The foundation gave the money to found hospitals and hospital schools, to build housing for hospital staff, to provide salary support for medical missionaries, to purchase small planes needed for flying supplies to mission stations, and to finance programs of TB examinations, dental clinics, maternity clinics, and to support the work of visiting nurses.
In 1955, for example, through the foundation, Mr. Young was supporting six researchers in Africa working on leprosy and setting up two new hospitals and two new dental clinics to Cameroon. In the same year 3,500,000 francs were sent to the medical mission at Batourie and 1,000,000 francs to the Norwegian mission hospital at Ngaoundere.
During the more than half a century when he was personally involved in this work, through the foundation he was able to establish mission hospitals not only in Cameroon, the main center of the foundation's work, but also in Chad, Zaire, Tanzania, Kenya and the Central African Republic.
Very much an individualist, he was wary of mission boards, though the foundation contributed generously to some of them. He preferred to work directly with mission stations so that every dollar contributed by the foundation would go directly to the work in Africa. Therefore he made periodic trips to Africa to discover the needs and to inspect the work which the foundation was supporting. These visits he continued through most of his life and in later years, from the mid-fifties on he was assisted by his wife, Fern, who has continued the work since his death. These visits, made in small planes, because the distances between stations is often great and the road system primitive, have been a highlight of Fern Young's central role in continuing the work of the foundation of Africa.
A devout man who began and ended each day on his knees in prayer, he was ecumenical in spirit. Although the Youngs regularly attended church, they belonged to none for they preferred to visit various churches in the area and they contributed to many. Among his notes for talks made to groups in Africa, one of his statements summarizes his faith: "God's purpose is to reveal his eternal spirit of truth, beauty, and goodness through his image, man, so that man will live in his spirit and seek the transforming power of love which will give him liberty, wisdom, and strength."
In the last years of his life, Irvin Young devoted much of his time to creating a center of meditation for people of all faiths. Located just outside of Palmyra, he hoped it would be a place of solace and inspiration.
Among the tributes to Irvin Young made at the time of his death, two stand out. Dr. Marshal Scott, then president of McCormick Seminary and resident of Whitewater, said: "he had a deep commitment to the church, and his particular interest was missions - especially in Africa." And his friend of half a century, Dr. Alexander Sharp, said: "Thousands of blacks in Africa, who have been healed by the doctors and dentists he supported in the hospitals and clinics he built...loved this big man who worked so many miracles from so far away."
When Ginny Coburn, then president of the Whitewater Public Library Board, approached the Young Foundation for a significant grant, she proposed that the library be named in his honor. "Wouldn't 'The Irvin L. Young Memorial Library' sound good?" she asked. Little did she know how appropriate the naming of a public library would seem to Fern Young because Fern recalled that whenever Irvin Young was stumped in his efforts to develop a new machine, he would plunge into one of the major research libraries in Chicago or Milwaukee to research his problem. Throughout his career, libraries had been of the greatest importance to him. And because of the appropriateness of such a building, the foundation made its grant of $500,000 to the library, that grant providing the impetus for the decision to build.