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Chicago teacher Albert J. Lockett Jr. dead at 85

Albert Lockett

Albert Lockett paid his way through college by working at a steel mill, waiting tables at the Palmer House, selling shoes for Florsheim, and modeling for Michelob beer ads that ran in the Chicago Defender and magazines.

He became a respected Chicago schoolteacher and assistant principal.

Though driven to achieve, he was also friendly and unflappable. His senior class at DuSable High School voted him “most pleasing personality.” When his introverted friend, Richard Davis, was too shy to introduce himself to DuSable’s legendary music teacher, Capt. Walter Dyett, young Albert accompanied him so Davis wouldn’t back down on his dream of joining the school band.

Davis’ trepidation was understandable. Dyett’s program produced musical legends, including Nat King Cole, Von Freeman, Gene Ammons and Dinah Washington.

“Captain Dyett had a reputation for being very strict,” Davis recalled. “I asked Lockett to come with me. We went up to the band room and Dyett looked at both of us and said, ‘What do you two want?’ I said I wanted to join the band.”

Mr. Lockett’s escort paid off.

Dyett admitted Davis to the music program, where he flourished. He became an internationally renowned bassist who worked with Miles Davis, John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Sarah Vaughan. He is also a music professor at the University of Wisconsin.

Mr. Lockett “was a straight-up guy,” Davis said.

Mr. Lockett, of Homewood, died on his 85th birthday at Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest. Up early so he could be the first person in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew his license, he suffered an apparent heart attack, said his daughter, Alicia Jenkins.

Albert Lockett grew up in Atlanta and attended Yonge Street Elementary School, where students were seated in alphabetical order.

His older sister, Marion Lockett, sat behind a boy named Martin Luther King Jr.

The Locketts’ mother, Rosa, had been a bridesmaid for Martin’s mother, Alberta King. Whenever the civil rights leader came to Chicago, the Locketts came out to support him.

When Albert was 5, his father, Albert Lockett Sr., died of pneumonia. His mother decided to join her siblings, who had migrated to Chicago. She and the children settled at 47th and Vincennes in Bronzeville, Chicago’s “Black Metropolis,” a bustling hive that matched New York’s Harlem for African-American culture, commerce and achievement.

While it was a thrilling mecca, it was a far more circumscribed time for African-Americans. “They could not go past Cottage Grove without scrutiny,” his daughter said.

At 14, Albert landed a job at the Regal Theater at 47th and King Drive, where he watched stars like Cab Calloway. “He was a little usher in the Regal Theater, so he was able to see all of them,” said his sister, Marion Lockett Jackson.

The Locketts joined Progressive Community Church, 56 E. 48th St., Alicia Jenkins said. Mr. Lockett remained a member of the church for 76 years.

Albert Lockett with his first wife, Gwendolyn Ellis. | Family photo

While studying at Wilson Junior College during the Korean War era, he was drafted into the U.S. Marines. He served as a clerk at California’s Camp Pendleton.

Through hard work and the GI bill, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Roosevelt University, paying the bills by selling shoes, toiling at Argo Laundry, and making salads and waiting tables at the Palmer House. He wore steel-toed boots to protect his feet at a job at Bethlehem Steel. He also appeared in print ads for Michelob beer, relatives said.

“He really pulled himself up by his bootstraps, to make his way through college and send three girls to college without student loans,” said another daughter, Phyllis Lockett.

He spent 30 years teaching social studies, history and black history in the Chicago public schools. Mr. Lockett worked at Byrd and Betsy Ross grade schools. He retired in 1990 as an assistant principal at Walter Reed Elementary.

After the 1988 death of his first wife, Gwendolyn Ellis, he met a new love, Mildred Brown, at a friend’s retirement party. They married in 1997.

Albert Lockett at his wedding to Mildred Brown with the Rev. B. Herbert Martin of Progressive Community Church. | Family photo

He enjoyed playing pinochle, bid whist and bridge. Mr. Lockett loved watching golf. Tiger Woods was his favorite player. In addition to his wife and two daughters, he is survived by another daughter, Julie Berry, and four grandchildren. Services have been held.

Mr. Lockett recited motivational poems like incantations, including the work of Edgar Albert Guest:

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,

There are thousands to prophesy failure;

There are thousands to point out to you one by one,

The dangers that wait to assail you.

But just buckle it in with a bit of a grin,

Just take off your coat and go to it;

Just start to sing as you tackle the thing

That “couldn’t be done,” and you’ll do it.

Albert Lockett with his daughters, Phyllis Lockett, Julie Berry and Alicia Jenkins. | Family photo