Renowned chemist Charles E. Cannon was also ‘one of the most pleasant people’

By Mari Devereaux, Staff Reporter

Courtesy Columbia College Chicago
Charles E. Cannon, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry in the Science and Mathematics Department who worked at Columbia for over 20 years, died Oct. 31 at Rush University Medical Center.

Charles E. Cannon, distinguished professor of chemistry in the Science and Mathematics Department, died Oct. 31 at Rush University Medical Center. Cannon, 73, retired in May after 27 years at Columbia, and his death resonated across the college.

“He was always one of the most pleasant people I would ever encounter,” said Keith Kostecka, associate professor in the Science and Mathematics Department. “[Cannon] never had a bad thing to say, never had a down attitude either, about anything. Even when, in the last year or so of his life, he started to become ill.”

Cannon died from cancer, said his great niece, Krystal Cannon.

Cannon was most widely known for his work with the American Chemical Society, where he served as chairperson of the Chicago chapter from 1982 to 1983 and received the Distinguished Service Award in 1999.

Kostecka, who is also a member of the society, said Cannon was recognized across the U.S. for traveling and participating in job fairs as part of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers.

Growing up in Vincent, Alabama, Cannon was the first in his immediate family to pursue science and mathematics. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Alabama A&M University and his master’s degree in organic chemistry from Vanderbilt University, according to a Nov. 7 statement from the Office of the Provost. He later earned his Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1974.

After college, he worked as a research chemist and lab supervisor at Amoco Research Center in Naperville and as a faculty member at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, according to the college’s archives.

Courtesy Krystal Cannon
Cannon is survived by two sisters, Frances Cannon and Glenda Edwards; and several nieces and nephews.

In 1992, Cannon joined Columbia as the chair of the Science and Mathematics Department, a position he held for 14 years. During his time at the college, he helped create the department’s first minor program in environmental studies, according to the Office of the Provost.

“When he came to the college many years ago, there was excitement among the black faculty and staff because for a long time … the absence of a black chair of a department on campus was really prevalent,” said Sheila Baldwin, associate professor in the English and Creative Writing Department and friend of Cannon.

Baldwin said Cannon was “the nicest man,” raised with Southern values like supporting family and colleagues in their pursuit of education and career success.

“I remember him always saying how he wanted to help his younger family members out,” Baldwin said. “He wanted to help his nephews and his nieces out. It was always, ‘If I can make it, I’m going to help you to make it also.’”

Professor in the Science and Mathematics Department Beth Davis-Berg said Cannon was a mentor to her and would often stop by her office to talk about life, family and work-related issues like improving the software and grading processes in their online classes.

Vice President of Student Affairs Sharon Wilson-Taylor met Cannon when he was hired as the chair of the Science and Mathematics Department and said “he went above and beyond to help students in his class.”

Wilson-Taylor said her favorite thing about Cannon was how he spoke about the students he taught. “His eyes would light up. It’s like it was amazing—a student grasping a concept,” she said.

Baldwin said one of Cannon’s passions outside of academia was singing as part of the gospel choir at the Apostolic Church of God, 6320 S. Dorchester Ave., where a funeral service was scheduled for Friday, Nov. 15.

In lieu of flowers, his family asks that contributions be made to the Rosetta James Scholarship Fund. Cannon is survived by two sisters, Frances Cannon and Glenda Edwards; and several nieces and nephews.


Correction 11/18/19 at 9:05 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated the incorrect rank of Elizabeth Davis-Berg. The Chronicle regrets this error.