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Illinois Restaurant Owner Who Died Of COVID-19 Remembered By Wife


We've been profiling some of those people we've lost in the pandemic. Today, we look at Harry William Powell, or Hecky as he was known. He died of COVID-related complications on May 22. Hecky Powell was the unofficial mayor of Evanston, Ill., a city that's the home of Northwestern University and Hecky's Barbecue, famous for its ribs and being the heart of the community it served. Cheryl Judice was Hecky's wife and joins us on the line now from Evanston. Thanks very much for being with us, and we're sorry for - sorry for the loss of Hecky.

CHERYL JUDICE: Well, thank you for having me.

SIMON: I have to ask - you were married for more than 35 years. You are a well-known academic and sociologist. How did the sociologists and the barbecue-ologist (ph) get together?

JUDICE: Both of us actually started off in social services. And we met when Hecky was working on an aldermanic campaign and I was helping to take care of the daughter of the person that was running for alderman.

SIMON: How did the barbecue come into your lives?

JUDICE: Well, barbecue came in much later. Hecky took a position as the executive director of this organization called CEDA/Neighbors At Work. Right next door were these storefronts and a friend of Hecky's who was in politics decided that Evanston needed to have a barbecue restaurant. So he started the restaurant, but then he discovered that while he was busy being a politician in Chicago, he was being robbed blind by the staff here at his restaurant. So he decided that, you know, maybe I need to sell this business. Around the same time, my mother-in-law, who has always been an excellent cook her entire life and then chef, she had been laid off from her job and she was looking for some more work to do, and his father as well was pretty much retired. So Hecky and I bought the restaurant the year before we got married with the idea that his folks would run the restaurant, and it wouldn't be that big a deal because, of course, he was working right next door to it.

SIMON: Yeah, well, I mean, it sounds like he became serious about the food.

JUDICE: Well, what happened was the restaurant took off. We opened the restaurant October the 13, 1983 - with Hecky being there and the name was changed to Hecky's Barbecue and most people knew him anyway. So things just began to grow organically in many ways, and that's how we got started.

SIMON: I've heard that there was a young Illinois state senator that went to Hecky's Barbecue too.

JUDICE: Yes, indeed. A young Barack Obama who was from the Hyde Park community of Chicago was out there community organizing and trying to get traction to get, you know, more into political life. And consequently, at some point, someone said to him, you know, you need to meet this guy up in Evanston. He's - you need to see if you can get an appointment with him. So apparently, Barack Obama called Hecky. Hecky had him come up to the restaurant, and Hecky really liked the guy. And, of course, once Hecky decides you need help, you're going to get help. So I believe when he first met Barack, that was on a Passover. We were invited to our neighbor's Passover dinner and I was getting vexed that Hecky was running late. You don't run late to Passover dinners. And so he shows up to the dinner about 20 minutes late, and he comes in and before I could say what happened, he said, I know I'm late but I have to tell you all, I have just met the first black vice president of the United States.

SIMON: Tell me some of what Hecky did just to be nice to people in the community? He would, I mean, reward students for making good grades, help people that had addiction problems.

JUDICE: Hecky was the kind of person that always gave more than people expected. And when it came to people in the community, Hecky always was about promoting young people, giving them their start in life. He contributed to so many groups and organizations. But again, if he embraced whatever your mission was and he could help, he did - included, for example, donation of food. I don't think many people graduate from Northwestern without having had Hecky's at some venue for something. (Laughter) It's just not going to happen.

SIMON: How did Evanston say goodbye to your husband, Hecky?

JUDICE: Well, I don't think they are fully said goodbye yet. People just kept leaving all kind of beautiful - floral tributes, cards, you name it, in front of the restaurant door. The day that Hecky went into the hospital, I closed the restaurant, and the flowers started coming and next thing I know, a lighted sign was there on the corner. Once he passed - if a town had a king - and a surprise to me, the Sunday following his death, somewhere in the area of about 200 cars drove down my block releasing balloons, showing signs, tossing flowers, giving cards. And I'm sitting there just waving to people, you know, with all this COVID thing, and I'm thinking, you know, Hecky would have loved this.

SIMON: You going to try and keep Hecky's open, professor Judice?

JUDICE: Oh, yes, definitely. What I'm hoping to do now is to make a few changes. You know, you have to plan for the future. We've got Hecky's Barbecue and it's going to be Hecky's Barbecue 2.0. When I realized that Hecky's is really an Evanston institution, the idea of not having Hecky's just is not anything that I can even conceive of.

SIMON: He sounds like a great guy.

JUDICE: He indeed was, no doubt about it.

SIMON: Cheryl Judice, her husband, Hecky Powell, died of COVID-related complications at the age of 71. Thank you so much for speaking with us and for Hecky's life. Thank you.

JUDICE: Well, thank you, again, for giving me the opportunity to do so. I have enjoyed it very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.