Hecky Powell, a beloved Evanston restaurateur who was a giant in the community, a tireless advocate for youth and the disadvantaged, a selfless leader and a dear friend of Northwestern University, passed away May 22. He was 71.
Evanstonians gathered at Powell’s famous Hecky’s Barbecue restaurant at 1902 Green Bay Road to mourn, tell stories and pay tribute to a lifelong resident who created the delicious smoked ribs and chicken specialties they loved.
“It’s the sauce,” was his famous slogan. But Powell’s life was the stuff of community legend.
He was like family to countless Evanstonians, mentor to Northwestern and Evanston students and a champion of those in need. Chicago-area families made Hecky’s an annual stop on their way to preparing Thanksgiving dinners. Many in the Northwestern community were shocked and saddened by the loss.
President Morton Schapiro announced today that “Our community picnic will henceforth be called the Northwestern-Hecky Powell Community Picnic.”
Powell mentored many students over the years, visited classes, loved the annual Mashup event with Evanston businesses and was an honored guest at the annual Community Picnic and other functions.
President Schapiro was stunned by the loss.
“Back on February 26th, we held a community event at Welsh-Ryan Arena,” President Schapiro recalled. “I arrived a little late and apologized for the delay in starting the program. The organizers replied that they weren’t waiting for me, they were waiting for Hecky! And just then, Hecky walked in, surrounded by his usual cadre of well-wishers and admirers. He greeted me with a bear hug, and as always, called me his brother.
“Every city has a person who personifies the best it has to offer. For Evanston, it was Hecky Powell,” observed President Schapiro. “Hecky — my brother, I will miss you every day. Thank you for being a mentor and a friend. May your memory be a blessing.”
Those who knew Powell said he was beloved for his openness, integrity, generosity, honesty and good humor. They recounted stories of how he helped others and was always genuine.
A businessman devoted to lifting up his community, Powell partnered with the University on several large-scale events, including the annual Community Picnic. Hecky’s signature barbecue sauce is a regular condiment across campus.
Dave Davis, Northwestern’s executive director of Northwestern’s office of Neighborhood and Community Relations, worked closely with Powell over the years and was deeply shaken by his loss. “He led with his heart and desire to help others and challenged us to be fully authentic and vulnerable,” Davis said.
“I’m devastated. Hecky represented the best qualities of the Evanston community,” Davis added. “He loved this city to his core and dedicated his life to strengthening our community. He brought so much happiness and joy to anyone fortunate enough to cross his path. No matter what you were going through, he had a unique ability to make you smile with his good humor and jovial demeanor. I’m going to miss his smiling face, boisterous laugh and gracious spirit.
“We lost a giant today, but his legacy will live on through his foundation and the work he did to help disconnected youth — especially young people of color, from low-income families — transform their lives and achieve their dreams,” Davis noted.
Powell established the Evanston Work Ethic (WE) Program in 2016 to assist Evanston Township High School students in improving their career and technical employment outcomes. WE is part of the Forrest E. Powell Foundation (FEP), named for Powell’s father, Forrest, who died in 1993. According to the FEP Foundation website, for more than 20 years, the foundation has celebrated the positive effects of a solid work ethic throughout the Evanston Community.
Powell worked to help young people gain work experience and the skills they need to become successful adults. He was a successful restaurateur who mentored new restaurant owners and paved the way for many small businesses in Evanston and beyond.
He often joked that he had two birthdays, his biological birthday on November 6, and September 6, 2011, when he was the recipient of a living donor liver transplant, after being told he only had a few months to live.
Among the people across Evanston remembering their cherished time with Powell was Patrick Hughes Jr., a longtime friend and an Evanston entrepreneur, community advocate and organizer for the rights of the disabled.
Hughes gave his son, Patrick, Powell’s name, Hecky, as a middle name, and every Christmas Hughes gives Hecky’s Barbecue sauce as a gift.
“That’s how much he means to us and our family,” Hughes said. “Hecky really enjoyed life and loved to have fun. He always had time for you, always, and I think that what was one of the special things about him for a lot of the Northwestern students, he actually took the time to be with them.”
Hughes was among the many who went to the restaurant today to reminisce and pay their respects to Powell. He erected signs in front that read, “A Generous Soul,” and “If a Town Had a King … To a Guy Who Lifted So Many. We Love You, Hecky.” Several people who gathered to tell stories and give tributes, including a man from the West Side of Chicago who drove up, said Powell gave them their first jobs.
In a statement posted on the Hecky’s Barbecue restaurant website today, the Powell family said, “We as a family are heartbroken and still processing this news and what this means. The outside world knew Hecky as a successful business owner and philanthropist in the Evanston community. However, we knew him best as the most generous and greatest father, husband, brother, son, cousin, friend and mentor anyone could ask for. We are so lucky and grateful to have had him in our lives and being the bedrock of our family. It goes without saying, but this will take all of us time before we can move forward.”
The family statement said the restaurant will be closed for the immediate future.
Powell is survived by his wife Cheryl Judice, who is an adjunct faculty member in SESP, numerous children and grandchildren, his mother and eight siblings.
Northwestern’s Community Picnic is a celebration of the University’s partnership with the City of Evanston. Last year was the fourth annual celebration, and it was held at Ryan Field for the first time. The event is meant to welcome Evanstonians to Northwestern, and Hecky’s is the primary food vendor.
More than 2,000 people attended last year’s picnic. The next one will be named to honor Powell. Unfortunately, Northwestern will not be able to host the picnic until next year, given the restrictions on social gatherings due to COVID-19, so the first picnic named in Powell’s honor will not occur until 2021.
Other tributes to Powell poured in over the Memorial Day holiday weekend from admirers near and far, including former Northwestern students. Many still order his sauce from across the country.
Paul Burton, a punter on Northwestern’s football team from 1992-97 and now a general assignment reporter for a TV station in Boston, described Powell as “an amazing man and dear friend.”
"Hecky Powell was more than just a Wildcat fan. He was my mentor, friend, confidant and a father figure,” Burton said. “He cared for me and my teammates like no other. Every Thursday, my teammates and I would drive to Hecky’s as part of our Thursday night pregame meal tradition. I did this for four consecutive years. Thursday night was always Hecky’s night. For me it was the baby back ribs, fries and extra sauce. He was truly part of our incredible Big Ten Championships we experienced.
“I will miss the smile, the handshakes, the advice and encouragement,” Burton said. “I actually still order the Hecky’s sauce and have it shipped to my house in Boston. I will be breaking out a bottle this Memorial Day weekend in his honor for sure. Thank you, Hecky Powell, for looking out for a bunch of young student-athletes who loved you so much and truly appreciated your generosity. We will miss you tremendously.”
Brian Musso, who was on that same football team and went on to play for the New York Jets, remembers those days well and will always remember Powell. "Hecky's and college life are forever intertwined for me,” he said. “Every Thursday night during football season, the build up to game day began with Hecky's ribs and an episode of “Seinfeld.” Thank you, Hecky Powell, for your kindness and generosity.”
Another former Northwestern athlete, Andy McDermott, an actor who lives in the Bay Area, remembered Powell and Hecky’s Barbecue fondly as well. McDermott was a three-year All Big-Ten soccer player and three-year team captain while at Northwestern. “Hecky's gave me many moments of joy,” McDermott said.