It’s the sauce and more: Hecky Powell, barbecue king and champion of the youth, dies at 71

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Daily file photo by Caroline Olsen

Hecky Powell, at the unveiling of his street sign Hecky Powell Way in 2014.

Sneha Dey, City Editor

When Angela McConner immigrated from Argentina 25 years ago, Hecky Powell paid for her English classes at the local community college. He helped McConner settle in Evanston and find her first job.

“He was like my father in America,” McConner said. “Who would do that for you, for somebody you don’t know? He helped because he (loved) people. And he loved Evanston… His passion for this town was contagious.”

Hecky Powell, an Evanston icon and lifelong resident, died Friday morning due to complications from COVID-19. He was 71.

In 1983, Powell opened up Hecky’s Barbecue with nothing but $100 in his cash register. At the time, he worked as an executive director at Neighbors at Work and would serve barbecue at night.

Hecky would end up leaving his administrative position, disillusioned by the social services programs that helped people survive but did not do enough to lift them out of poverty. He thought he could do more as a small business owner.

The pulled pork, the barbecued turkey drumsticks and his famous sauce are all recipes from his mother Verna, who was raised in New Orleans. His mother also worked as the cook for 10 years.

The motto at Hecky’s Barbecue is “It’s the sauce.” But for Hecky, it was about so much more than the sauce.

He employed Evanston Township High School students through the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program. Many Evanston residents say it was Hecky Powell who gave them their first job.

He founded the Work Ethic Program, which provides training, internships, mentorships and tuition stipends to ETHS students interested in the trade and tech sectors.

He also founded the Forrest E. Powell Foundation, named after his father, which helps local youth with vocational training.

“What I’d like to be remembered for is that I was able to help a lot of young people,” Powell told The Daily in 2014.”I was able to help a lot of young people get on the right track.”

Evanston resident and ETHS graduate Meleika Gardner said Powell represents the ultimate success story. Powell faced some real harships as a kid, but he changed his path and became a respected entrepreneur, Gardner said.

Growing up in Evanston, Gardner and her friends would often go to the famous Hecky’s Barbecue. And as for the owner, Gardner said everyone saw Hecky as a “godfather.”

When she returned to Evanston six years ago, Hecky was her first paying client at Evanston Live TV. As a veteran of the city, he guided her through Evanston politics and gave her “old school” guidance.

“Everybody has a Hecky Powell story that they’ll carry with them forever,” Gardner said.

Powell has served as Evanston/Skokie School District 65 school board president, has been named small business person of the year by the Evanston Chamber of Commerce, and was a member of the city’s Economic Development Committee. Six years ago, the corner of Green Bay Road and Emerson Street, where the barbecue restaurant is located, was designated “Hecky Powell Way.”

Two weeks before his passing, Hecky told The Daily that even amid the pandemic, socially distant lines would snake around the restaurant. Now, Hecky’s Barbecue will be closed indefinitely.

“A brightly shining light went dark today in Evanston,” Congressman Jan Schakowsky (D-Evanston) said in a statement. “It is hard to imagine a world without Hecky, a treasured long-time friend of mine.”

On Friday, residents visited the eatery to leave flowers and honor him. A marquee board sign reads: “If a town had a king…To a guy who lifted so many. We love you Hecky.”

Powell is survived by his wife, Cheryl Judice, his children and grandchildren.

“The outside world knew Hecky as a successful business owner and philanthropist in the Evanston community,” a statement from his family reads. “We knew him best as the most generous and greatest father, husband, brother, son, cousin, friend and mentor anyone could ask for.”

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