Hecky Powell
Photo by Genie Lemieux, Evanston Photographic Studios
Hecky Powell Photo by Genie Lemieux, Evanston Photographic Studios

Hecky Powell, longtime restauranteur, philanthropist, former District 65 School Board member, and outspoken voice on Evanston issues for nearly half a century, has died, apparently after a short battle with the novel coronavirus.

Soon after social media sites reported Mr. Powell’s death, people from all sectors of the community expressed grief on the sites and paid tribute to Mr. Powell’s wide impact.

Speaking at a Coronavirus Task Force meeting, Mayor Stephen Hagerty put aside the group’s usual agenda, declaring to those listening in that this is “a tough day in Evanston.

“If the pandemic wasn’t real before this – and it should be real – it feels even more real now,” said the Mayor. Mr. Powell received a liver transplant in 2011.

Mayor Hagerty said that while the Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office has not yet determined the cause of death, it is believed to have been COVID-19.

Mr. Powell “was a beloved member of the Evanston community who dedicated his life to serving others both at his famous restaurant and through his leadership in the areas of workforce and economic development, youth outreach and mentoring,” the Mayor said in a statement.

Mr. Powell “embodied the very best of Evanston,” he said, “and loved our City and its residents unconditionally.”

An Evanston kid who made good, “he embodied the soul of the City,” said Fourth Ward Alderman Donald Wilson.

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, who nearly four decades ago worked under Mr. Powell as a Housing and Weatherization counselor at the social service agency Neighbors at Work, said the outpouring on social media “is beyond belief and speaks to the impact Mr. Powell had on people’s lives.

“And I don't think the passing of any other Evanstonian at any level of government or social status or profession would have generated this kind of response,” she said.

“And the reason for that is that Hecky knew people as people. He knew them socially, he knew their personal problems. He knew them from every segment of their lives, and it’s [the reaction] has just been unbelievable, and I hope his family is aware of what’s going on.”

Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, also speaking at the Task Force meeting, recalled stopping in Mr. Powell’s office off of Green Bay during different phases of her professional life, sometimes receiving a reprimand and sometimes getting encouragement.

“But the one thing that really stands with me is how accepting he was and the belief that he had in anyone willing to invest in themselves,” she said.

“He opened up his business as a training ground, and an incubator for other small businesses,” she said. “I know personally that he offered his space after hours for those launching their businesses to test out their opportunities in the food industry; he offered his business and paid service entrepreneurs to clean his facilities as they were launching cleaning services. I know of many returning citizens that he gave an opportunity at employment and an opportunity to grow in a management capacity and earn a living wage.”

In November 2014, the City named a section of street between Asbury Avenue and Green Bay Road “Hecky Powell Way,” in honor of Mr. Powell’s many achievements.

The section of street was located just down the way from Hecky’s Barbecue, where generations of Evanston residents, including many Northwestern University students met the charismatic owner for the first time and were clued in on their new home.

Two Evanston mayors, Lorraine H. Morton (now deceased) and Elizabeth Tisdahl, were among the throng of well-wishers at the street-naming ceremony.

Quipped Mayor Tisdahl, “I don’t know why we bothered to put up the sign, and have a party and always stand out in the street corner, because it’s always been Hecky’s way.”

At the time, she recalled her first meeting with Mr. Powell, tracking him down for a donation to an Evanston Township High School booster group.

“He’s the kind of guy who gives you something when you ask,” she said, “and he’ll give you something when you don’t ask if he knows you’re having a hard time.”

Lynn Weiss, Executive Director of the Forrest E. Powell Foundation Evanston Work Ethic Program, a program that teams youngsters with local businesses in apprenticeships, was among those, reacting to today’s news.

“Hecky made The Evanston Work Ethic Program possible.,” Ms. Weiss told program participants. “There wasn't a day that he didn't contribute his advice, connections, and values to our efforts.

“Hecky believed that every individual deserves an opportunity to succeed. He believed in helping people who worked hard to help themselves.

“Hecky's big heart and amazing vision will always be a guide to us and our work.”

Carl LaMell, chair of the Forrest E. Powell Foundation, which Mr. Powell started in his father’s name, said he met Mr. Powell 15 years ago at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse, and the two “just clicked.”

Mr. Powell “was the kind of guy who would help any underdog kind of person,” he said.

The Foundation tries to help young kids, juniors and seniors, who aren’t sure about college, and “target them on a career path if we can,” he said. “It’s not a big organization. We try to break down administration costs and everything. We have one staff member.”

As for the group’s status with Mr. Powell’s death, “we have no choice. He would be very upset with us if we didn’t move forward,” Mr. LaMell said.