Shirley Pickett grew up in a close-knit Chicago neighborhood where people looked out for each other’s kids as they hula-hooped and played at Tuley Park.
She gave back at the office and in her free time. As a vice president at Beverly Bank, she worked to rehab and sell rundown homes. She was the first African-American woman to serve on the board of St. Xavier University. And she mentored students at Fenger High School.
Ms. Pickett, 78, died April 21 at her Evergreen Park home of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
She was born in Chicago. In the early 1950s, her family moved to West Chesterfield, joining many African-American servicemen and their families who were drawn to the tidy homes of the South Side neighborhood and the promise of work at nearby employers including the Canfield pop company and, later, Johnson Products, the makers of SoftSheen and Afro Sheen. West Chesterfield is bounded roughly by 95th Street on the south, 87th Street on the north, South Park (now Martin Luther King Drive) on the east and the Dan Ryan Expressway on the west. Other West Chesterfield residents were nurses, teachers and postal workers. Her father did automotive repair at Midway Chevrolet.
The neighborhood “became the foundation for a lot of working-class and middle-class blacks,” said her cousin, Loretta Horton. “Everyone kept tabs on the children. We truly could not get out of hand because all the parents knew each other.”
Young Shirley attended Burnside grade school and Fenger High.
“Everybody had a bicycle. Everybody hula-hooped,” her cousin said. “We had block parties when you didn’t have to wait on your alderman” for a permit.
Ms. Pickett met her first husband, Charles Pickett, while horseback riding. When he served in the Air Force, they lived in Texas and Virginia before returning to Chicago. They had three sons. The couple later divorced.
At Beverly Bank, she worked as a vice president of business and community development and helped found Roseland Area Redevelopment Enterprises, which rehabbed distressed homes.
“She had to overcome the dual issues around being female and being African-American, and she always tried to do that with dignity,” said her son, Carlos Pickett. “She really, in my opinion, was a bridge between the white community and the black community.”
As a trustee at St. Xavier, she chaired a committee on admission and student life, said Steve Murphy, the university’s executive director of development.
“She was really a gracious woman who pioneered relations with the community for St. Xavier,” Murphy said. “She obviously had a beautiful smile and an outgoing way.”
Ms. Pickett juggled responsibilities including being president of the South Side Parents of Deaf and Hearing-Impaired Students. Her son Timothy has a hearing impairment. The group helped lobby for students during the founding of the city’s first magnet high school, Whitney Young, her son said.
Ms. Pickett founded a public relations firm, Shirley Pickett & Associates, that publicized the opening of Chicago’s Cotton Club. Active with South Side Chamber of Commerce groups, she also did fundraising for the American Red Cross and the American Cancer Society. She was a longtime member of the Roseland Community Hospital Board.
Friends and family looked to her for help in planning big events. “If somebody was getting married, she was always the go-to person for organizing their receptions,” her cousin said.
Her second husband, Leon Davis, played an inadvertent role in the election of Harold Washington, the city’s first African-American mayor. When former Mayor Jane Byrne removed him and another African-American from the Chicago Board of Education and replaced them with two Caucasians, the city’s black electorate was incensed and galvanized in a powerful way.
Ms. Pickett, who stood about 4-feet-10, loved turtles. She had a collection of terrapin figurines and often wore necklaces and brooches sporting turtles.
She is also survived by another son, Shawn, and her brothers Arthur and Barry. Ms. Pickett also was “Grandee” to nine grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
Services have been held.