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Hecky Powell, Barbecue Master and Civic Leader, Dies at 71

Updated: Sep 15, 2020

From his restaurant in Evanston, Ill., he fed hungry students and the Chicago Bulls, and counseled high schoolers, mayors, a governor and a young Barack Obama.

Hecky Powell in front of his restaurant, 2014
Hecky Powell in 2014 outside his popular barbecue restaurant in Evanston, Ill. “Hecky was genuine, straightforward and practical,” said Gov. J.B. Pritzker of Illinois.Credit...Genie Lemieux/Evanston Photographic Studios

Hecky Powell had a deal with one of his longtime employees, a woman who had struggled with a drug habit. Every time she attended a rehab meeting, he paid her $15. If she worked a full week, she got a bonus. But if she flaked, she lost the entire week’s wages.

Mr. Powell, whose South Side Chicago-style barbecue restaurant was an institution in Evanston, Ill., liked to say that he didn’t want to give people handouts — he wanted to give them skills. From his office, chockablock with awards, newspaper clippings, banners and plaques in his name, he mentored the young and the disadvantaged as well as the powerful. He died on May 22 at 71 in a hospital in Glenview, Ill. His wife, Cheryl Judice, said the cause was complications of Covid-19.

Mr. Powell fed Northwestern University students who didn’t have the money to travel home for Thanksgiving. He paid struggling high school students $20 for every A they earned. He offered scholarships and grants to countless others.

He also fed the Chicago Bulls, catering the team’s private plane on occasion at the request of their All-Star forward Scottie Pippen, and he once advised a young Barack Obama when Mr. Obama was running for the Illinois Senate.

“I have just met the first African-American vice president,” he told his wife.

“He was the unofficial mayor of Evanston,” said Stephen H. Hagerty, the city’s actual mayor. He recalled how Mr. Powell had driven him through the Fifth Ward, the heart of Evanston’s black community, to give him a history lesson when Mr. Hagerty was running for office. And Mr. Powell had long been a sounding board for his friend J.B. Pritzker, even before Mr. Pritzker, a Democrat, became governor of Illinois last year. Mr. Powell would always speak his mind, the governor said in a phone interview.

“I don’t want to say he was blunt; that sounds too abrupt,” Mr. Pritzker said. “Hecky was genuine, straightforward and practical. He wasn’t an ideologue. He was a problem solver. He might be conservative on one issue and liberal on another. ”

His candor could strike some people the wrong way. In 2003, when Mr. Powell was a member of the local school board, he questioned a survey that categorized biracial students as either black or white. “In America, we’re all mutts,” he said. “I’m a mutt.”

There was blowback. The word “mutt” was a racist slur, many complained.

Afterward, Mr. Powell, whose mother is Creole, mischievously added a Mutt Special to Hecky’s menu (a combo platter of fried chicken, rib tips and hot links). Mr. Powell said the name was an acronym for “Me Uttering the Truth.”

In 2008, when President-elect Obama declared himself a mutt, too, in response to a question about what kind of shelter dog he might adopt for his daughters, Mr. Powell felt vindicated. “Obama ‘Mutt’ Remark Gets Evanston Man Out of the Dog House,” a Chicago television station declared.

“Hecky would tell you that the only color that matters in this country is green,” Ms. Judice said.

Hecky Powell in 2013. His restaurant’s motto was “It’s the Sauce” — and he bottled it. Credit...Genie Lemieux/Evanston Photographic Studios

Harry William Powell was born on Nov. 6, 1948, at Cook County Hospital in Chicago (now the John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County). His mother, Verna (Jenkins) Powell, a New Orleans native, had been forced to give birth there because there was no room at the Community Hospital of Evanston, the only one in town then that accepted black patients. His father, Forrest Powell, was a buildings custodian who did maintenance work for wealthy white families on the side.

One of nine siblings, Hecky — he inherited the nickname from an uncle — was a teenage father with a wild streak that landed him in state detention for eight months on a vandalism charge. He earned a college degree at the University Without Walls, a nontraditional degree program at Northeastern Illinois University, while working as a community organizer and social services director in Evanston.

In 1983, Mr. Powell and Ms. Judice, a sociologist, had been dating for several years and working side by side on community initiatives when the restaurant next to Mr. Powell’s office came on the market. The couple bought it. They knew nothing about food, Ms. Judice said, but Mr. Powell’s mother certainly did.

Verna Powell had lost her job at a restaurant, and her husband was out of work, too. The idea was that the elder Powells would run the place. They named it Hecky’s. It offered a full barbecue menu (including sauce-drenched ribs and rib tips on a bed of fries and two slices of Wonder Bread), for takeout, delivery and catering only.

Hecky’s soon had a motto, “It’s the Sauce,” and a following. William Perry, a Chicago Bears lineman aptly known as the Refrigerator, was an early customer.

In 1996, Mr. Powell and Evanston’s mayor at the time, Lorraine Morton, made a bet with the mayor of Pasadena that Northwestern’s Wildcats would beat the University of Southern California in the Rose Bowl. When their home team lost, Mr. Powell made ribs and chicken for Pasadena’s entire City Council.

Kevin Pang, a food writer in Chicago, said that by virtue of having a restaurant in the suburb of Evanston near the Northwestern campus, Mr. Powell had introduced a wider world to South Side-style barbecue, prepared in an aquarium smoker and slathered in sauce. (Hecky’s ultimately bottled its sauce and sold it nationwide.)

“Hecky took a finicky, hard-to-replicate style of barbecue, studied by few and mastered by even fewer, and absolutely nailed it,” Mr. Pang said. “He smoked rib tips and hot links as good as any one in the Midwest.”

Mr. Powell, a former director of Neighbors at Work, a community organization, created the Forrest E. Powell Foundation, named for his father, in 1994, a work-skills program for those without a college degree. He had been president of the local branch of the N.A.A.C.P. In 2014, the corner where his restaurant sits was named “Hecky Powell Way.”

In addition to his wife and mother, Mr. Powell is survived by his children, Sharmin, Terry, Dawn, Joy, Hecky Jr., Jason and Gigi, as well as seven siblings.

Last week, a parade of cars in his honor drove slowly through Evanston, saluting Ms. Judice with their horns as she sat in front of their brick home, an American flag whipping in the breeze behind her.

Hecky’s has stayed open during the pandemic, busier than ever, though it has promoted social distancing and other protective measures. In early May, before succumbing to the coronavirus, Mr. Powell posed for a community service poster. It read, “No Mask No Sauce.”

Reposted from The New York Times, June 4 article.


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