The Beauty of Hecky Powell

Hecky Powell died this week, a victim of the Coronavirus. He wasn’t nationally famous, although he probably could have been. However, in and around the area of Evanston, Chicago’s closest northern suburb and a complex city in its own right, he was famous. In fact, Hecky, in his passing, had this posted on a sign outside his eponymous restaurant, “If Evanston had a king … To a guy who lifted so many. We love you Hecky!”. Despite the “king” reference, the beauty of Hecky Powell had nothing to do with the trappings of royalty, the regal world, or wealth, but rather, it was in the nature of a man who gave to others while expecting nothing back besides an honest day’s work and the value of your word.

I wasn’t Hecky’s close friend. I wasn’t his business partner or fellow congregant. But, I am an Evanstonian by upbringing and as a graduate of Evanston Township High School, still a Wildkit at heart. I did serve with Hecky on the Evanston-Skokie District 65 School Board for four years. I didn’t really “know” Hecky until we were school board colleagues, but like many people in and around Chicago, you felt like you knew him well if all you ever did was walk into Hecky’s Barbecue on Green Bay Road (re-named Hecky Powell Way in 2014) and ordered a “large tip, extra order of fries with sauce on the side.”

Before I talk about the man and his impact on me, can I talk about the barbecue for just a minute? As an Evanston person, I was somewhat “raised” on barbecue through Hecky’s. As the son of a German-born Jew, my concept of barbecue before Hecky’s was hot dogs on the grill and some fall-off-the-bone stuff you get at restaurants or steak houses claiming how good their ribs are. Ten years ago, I moved to the south side of Chicago and started visiting the more well-known and “famous” barbecue spots in Chicago. Sorry to my south side neighbors, your stuff is just not that good. You guys are trying, but it can’t approach Hecky’s.

Hecky’s ribs have that perfect effect where the meat grips the bone just enough to make you do a little bit of work before it drops into your mouth. Similarly, the rib tips are in a class of their own compared   to any of the other pretenders out here. Sitting in a white Styrofoam box, perched on top of a piece of white bread and seasoned crinkle cut fries, a large order of tips can last you 3 days if you’re smart. If you’re not, you will sleep very well with all that pile of pork laying in your happy belly.

I’m not just recounting my barbecue memories either. After moving south ten years ago, I continued to make the hour plus drive to Evanston on a regular basis to pick up my tips and to try, but often fail to avoid eating all the fries on my way back home.

I called Hecky a few years ago when my wife started hosting an annual event in Grant Park to see if I could somehow get his food as part of her menu. I asked him if he could deliver that far, he responded, “Sh*t, I’ll deliver to LA if they’re gonna pay.” Needless to say, the food arrived right on time every year and people started asking if she’d have “that barbecue” before confirming their attendance.

All of the barbecue talk is to help me say that even if I hadn’t gotten to know Hecky through our work on the school board, his death would have saddened me considerably, as both an Evanston person and a customer.

Other than the barbecue, there is something about the man that is making me sit in my home and wonder why, a week after his passing, I can’t shake the tragic image of a death too soon. Maybe it was his view of the world that, despite being a black man, was eminently color-free; maybe it was his enviable ability to articulate an opinion or view without worrying about the inevitable blowback; or maybe it was either or both of these things together with a passion for something that could be shared with and used to nurture others.

That “thing” that Hecky had which many of us strive for all our lives was a work ethic at the highest level. He used to talk about it all the time. Not his own, but the lack of it in others. Many times, we’d have conversations that would start out on some form of school board-related matter and inevitably lapse into someone’s or some group’s lack of willingness to work hard. Most of us would internalize that issue and squawk or bitch about it when the feeling arose. I was one of them, complaining to Hecky when someone in my office failed to come to work or complete a project as requested. “It’s that work ethic John,” he’d say. “People just don’t want to work anymore.”

Hecky didn’t waste time complaining. He did something about it. Among other things he did that benefitted others and paved their way for a positive future was founding the Evanston Work Ethic Program, which provides paid internships, mentorships, training and tuition stipends to local students going into tech or trade fields after high school. In fact, it was common to see young people learning how to work hard and how to face the public as employees at Hecky’s Barbecue.

The community will miss Hecky Powell. A lot. I saw today that his son Jason has re-opened the restaurant. That's a good thing. Even though I'll be back for my large tips, extra side of fries with sauce on the side, I'm going to really miss Hecky's smiling face across the counter. That warm feeling when you walk into a place is all too rare, but for those who've been there, they'll know -- It's the Sauce.

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