UCLA Spotlight

The man behind the building name: James E. LuValle

  • Published Feb 12, 2007 8:00 AM

Of the five Black alumni whose names appear on campus buildings, James LuValle is the least known. Arthur Ashe and Jackie Robinson enjoy the fame of athletes; Ralph Bunche and Tom Bradley distinguished themselves in public service. But who was James LuValle?


In 1936, most UCLA students could answer that question. That year, the charismatic LuValle was recognized with the Jake Gimball Award for being the outstanding all-round senior. A Phi Beta Kappa in chemistry who paid his way through school with a Regents' scholarship and a job in the chemistry lab, LuValle was also an athlete of note. He competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, winning a bronze medal in the 400 meter dash.

Years later, LuValle described the contrasts at that Olympics. From the top of the grandstand, he could see the rows of armed brownshirts and blackshirts outside the stadium, as well as the athletes inside. ". . . on one side I had 55 nations who were there to see who could run the fastest, who could jump the highest, who could dive with most beauty, and so on. On the other side of that, we had over 50,000 ready to go to war that day." The image was indelible, and LuValle told the story often.

After touring Europe with other Olympic athletes, LuValle returned to UCLA to earn his master's degree in chemistry and physics. He was chosen first president of the Associated Graduate Students — the forerunner of today's Graduate Students Association. That's one reason LuValle Commons, the first student center on campus designed primarily for the use of graduate students, was named in his honor.

At the dedication of LuValle Commons in 1985, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley recalled how he followed in LuValle's footsteps — first at Los Angeles Polytechnic High School and later as a UCLA student and track athlete.

LuValle went on to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry from Cal Tech, working under Linus Pauling. Like Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in major league baseball, LuValle faced barriers of discrimination. Only Fisk University, in those days an all-Black institution, would hire him as a faculty member. When he left Fisk to work in industry, he became the first African American to work for the Kodak research labs. His research there on color photography earned him three U.S. patents.

LuValle later did research at Fairchild Camera and Instrument, and at Smith-Corona Merchant Labs. At the end of his professional life, LuValle worked as director of undergraduate chemistry labs at Stanford University. He died January 30, 1993 while on vacation in New Zealand.

LuValle loved to visit the student center that bore his name. His "Just call me Jimmy" friendliness endeared him to both students and staff. So the LuValle coffeehouse also became his namesake: its name is simply "Jimmy's."

Quote taken from an oral history of James E. LuValle by the Amateur Athletic Union of Los Angeles. Historical photos from UCLA yearbooks.