Hecky Powell | 'There is always a positive...'
By Jim Merriner
This is the story of a limb that was cut from a tree and tossed in the trash.
A fierce storm rumbled through Evanston in 1993. It knocked down a tree in the yard of Forrest E. Powell.
Forrest’s grandfather had been born into slavery. Forrest himself worked hard, cleaned houses on the North Shore, raised nine kids, and bought his house by contract when blacks could not get a mortgage.
He was sawing up the downed tree when his son Hecky stopped by with his own young son. “Dad,” Hecky said, “sit down, let me help you for a second.” And then “something hit me spiritually—this is the last time you guys are going to work [together].”
Hecky’s parents had first taken him to Unity on the North Shore. “Catholic, Baptist, never did it for me, but Unity did. We all have our own journey to go down. We have to recognize that journey and accept who you are. There is always a positive reason you are going down that journey, but you might can’t see it at the time.”
Hecky’s own journey took him—“a troubled teenager”—to a Downstate reform school for eight months. But “I don’t blame anyone for what I’ve done in life and that’s what Unity taught me.”
Today, Hecky is such an esteemed civic leader that Evanston has given him an honorary street name, Hecky Powell Way, outside his famous Hecky’s Barbecue restaurant. He launched it in 1983 while working as a social services administrator after graduating from Northeastern Illinois University.
Soon he realized that “God’s giving me a gift to work with young people.” Besides helping them learn work and social skills as part of his restaurant staff, in 1994 he set up the Forrest E. Powell Foundation. It offers training, mentors, paid apprenticeships, and scholarships to working-class kids seeking vocational education or music careers.
Then, just three years ago, Hecky created the Evanston Work Ethic Program as part of the foundation. Mentors are offered to students at Evanston Township High School who aren’t going on to college but who want to learn a trade. Also, the program presents an annual Work Ethic Award to an Evanston adult.
Hecky is uncompromising in his commitment to the work ethic. There is no “(as we call it in the neighborhood) ‘pimping the system.’ We are not trying to force anything on any of these kids, but they have to demonstrate that they will meet us halfway.”
After all, his dad “never asked for hand-me-outs from the government.” Plus, he had “no kind of racist attitude. ‘The white man this, the white man that’—that, we never heard.”
Soon after Hecky and Forrest had cut up that tree, Forrest was taken away in an ambulance. “Something hit me right there—go get that branch! The branch was in the garbage can. I didn’t plan it that way but it was three branches on a limb.” Hecky's father died that night.
Those three branches are now mounted in Hecky’s office, symbolizing Family, Community, Spirituality—the principles of the Forrest E. Powell Foundation.