I am a mutt’

Malavika Jagannathan

Hecky Powell is a man with many sides.

He is a father of three. He is a philanthropist. He is a school board member. He is an activist. He is a laid-back businessman.

And if you ask him, he’ll tell you he’s a “mutt.”

Sitting in his office next to Hecky’s Barbecue, 1902 Green Bay Road, Powell is dressed for a day at work in a black shirt and jeans.

“In this business you don’t have to wear the suits, and you get the money,” Powell said. “That’s what counts.”

A former social worker and a current member of the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 board, Powell has been a lifelong resident of Evanston, a place he says still is divided by race.

While Powell he was growing up, the race issue dealt with segregation. But the issue has become overblown, he said, and now is more about political correctness and finding a place to lay the blame.

And these days, a lot of the blame is coming Powell’s way.

The only black member of the District 65 school board, Powell has been embroiled in a recent controversy over his use of the term “mutt” to describe biracial children at a March 24 meeting. Powell’s three children are biracial, as is he.

But one comment does not make the man — and Powell is a self-made man.

“My first job as a young man was at a restaurant — the Main Street Cafe — and I hated it,” Powell said. He had no idea he would end up as a restaurateur.

Since 1983, Hecky’s Barbecue, on the west side of Evanston, has acted as a colorful cornerstone of Evanston culture.

Powell uses his business not only to sell barbecue but also to sponsor athletic teams and offer scholarships and jobs to at-risk teens.

“For a tiny little corner business, he hasn’t done so badly,” said Dick Peach, president-elect of the Evanston Chamber of Commerce.

“He used the business to help kids,” Peach said. “He’s a phenomenon and he did it all on his own. He dug in, got dirty and cleaned it up and made it happen.”

Powell credits his father for his work ethic.

“My father was a hard worker,” Powell said. “He believed that whatever you took on, you had to be the best at it.

“He never went without work. We were never on welfare, we never went without, we were never on food stamps.”

A foundation created in his father’s name — Forrest E. Powell — echoes the family philosophy: “You only compete with yourself.”

Dishing up divisive views

Barbecue and philanthropy aren’t the only thing cooking at Powell’s restaurant — after a contentious school-board meeting, Powell used the business to sell his political views.

During a discussion about school demographics at the District 65 board’s March 24 meeting, Powell said he was concerned that Evanston classified biracial children when the state did not. When Evanston reports its numbers to the state, biracial statistics are evenly distributed between white and black categories.

“I said, ‘Well, wait a minute, what does that mean?'” Powell said in retrospect. “What if you’re Hispanic and you’re married to someone white, isn’t that biracial?

“In America we’re all mutts. I am a mutt. I am a Creole.”

Prompted by complaints from parents, Powell later apologized for his remark, but some community members still are incensed by his remarks and have called for his resignation from the board.

Fellow board members declined to comment.

Powell’s apology wasn’t his last word on the subject. At the May 19 board meeting, Tracey Wallace, an Evanston resident and parent of biracial children, distributed copies of a new menu item at Hecky’s — the “MUTT special”– a combination platter including fried chicken, rib tips and hot licks.

“I was insulted — as a last jab, he produced this,” said Wallace, who is black. “I don’t want my kids to grow up and respond to being called a mutt, just like I didn’t like responding to being called a ‘nigger.'”

Wallace also said that despite Powell’s good reputation in the community, he was acting in self-interest.

“You keep hearing that he does a lot of good, sponsoring Little League teams and basketball camps,” Wallace said. “But what he is really doing is getting advertising for Hecky’s.”

But Powell, who has said he will “not be intimidated by anyone,” explained the menu item as a joke between his employees and customers. Powell said the special, an acronym for “Me Uttering The Truth,” was a rebuttal of attempts to silence his political views.

“I was acting as Hecky the businessman by my teasing,” Powell said. “My customers are laughing about it.

“This whole deal with being politically incorrect is getting out of hand. Mutt is an endearing word and it is a word I am not going to take out of my vocabulary. I will never use it in public again, but calling my entree a ‘MUTT Special’ has nothing to do with it.”

Some agree with Powell’s decision to continue voicing his opinions.

“He’s been a very successful businessman and he’s a creative person when it comes to selling barbecue,” NAACP Secretary Judith Treadway said. “He was being humorous by creating his new meal.

“Somebody must like it, because they’re still going to Hecky’s.”

The changing role of race

In Powell’s opinion race was not as much of an issue when he was growing up in Evanston as it seems to be now.

“My dad always said there’s not just one color in this community which makes it great,” Powell said. “We did have our racial problems, but nothing like this.”

He said the recent brouhaha over his words has only demonstrated the continuing racial tension.

“I’m pretty accustomed to the fact that Hecky will speak his mind,” said Cheryl Judice, Powell’s wife. “This is nothing but a ploy by his political enemies searching for some possible way to thwart some of the things he would like to do.”

Judice said she was surprised by all of the furor caused by Powell’s remarks given his prominence in the community.

“I can’t believe anyone thinks this is serious,” she said. “Anytime a person can be known in this town by his first name, you would know what he really means. I can’t get worked up over this silly stuff.”

Powell, who ran for the school board because his three children were in the school system, said he was elected by a citywide vote, not just by black voters.

“I am a trustee of the children regardless of what color they are,” Powell said.

“Race plays such a big part in this community,” he added. “You have a core of black people in this community who are always making the white liberals on the school board feel guilty, and the community is immobilized.”

Powell said his decision to run for the school board “was the worst decision of (his) life,” and he said he will not seek re-election.

He said he has better served the children in the community by working directly with them through camps and offering them scholarships.

“I learn a lot from the kids,” Powell said. “Sitting on the school board I learn nothing.”

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