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James ‘Major’ Adams dead at 94; ‘Pied Piper’ helped kids

James "Major" Adams. | Sun-Times photo

Many of the thousands of West Side kids mentored by James “Major” Adams at the Henry Horner Boys & Girls Club became teachers, doctors, lawyers, police officers, executives and entrepreneurs.

Two grew up to be members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Maurice and Verdine White of soul-R&B powerhouse Earth, Wind & Fire.

“He was a major influence in my life and my brother’s life,” said Verdine White, the group’s bassist. “Without him, we wouldn’t be where we are today.” Playing music in Mr. Adams’ programs “was just a lot of fun. A great mentor.”

“A great, great man,” Secretary of State Jesse White said of Mr. Adams. “Whenever they needed counseling and guidance, he was there for them. . . . He left his mark on these young people from the West Side. He helped them grow tall and straight.”

Chicago Bull Joakim Noah praised him via email. “My mother and I feel so grateful to have known Major Adams and have established our programs out of Major Adams Community [Committee] since 2010,” Noah said. “To see so many generations having been inspired by his spirit for peace, education and a safe environment for the youth in Chicago is truly remarkable and resonates with the mission of our foundation, Noah’s Arc Foundation.”

Former Chicago Bull Andre Wakefield called him one of the “angels” at Henry Horner. “James Major Adams is like a Pied Piper,” Wakefield once told the Chicago Sun-Times. “He got me into the drum and bugle corps and kept me involved in the boys club.”

And “he kept down a lot of the problems among the gangs,” White said. “He communicated with both [sides], one gang and the other gang, maintained peace and tranquility over there.”

Mr. Adams — who used to say, “Oh, boy!” when he was excited — was greeted with cries of “Hey, Maj, what’s happening!” when he walked around the West Side. He died Saturday at 94.

He knew how to manage up and down before business gurus used those terms. The World War II Army veteran and trumpeter started a music program and a precision drum and bugle corps to keep kids busy and off the street.

James “Major” Adams started music programs to keep West Side kids busy and off the street. | Sun-Times file photo
James “Major” Adams started music programs to keep West Side kids busy and off the street. | Sun-Times file photo

Mr. Adams also knew politicians were powerful allies. “He had the ability and charm and charisma to have them kind of be on the same track,” said Howard Lathan, associate executive director of the Chicago Area Project, a network of community organizations. He is a former drum major with Mr. Adams’ Hornets Drum & Bugle Corps.

Mayor Richard M. Daley called him a hero. “He’s helped so many people,” Daley said in a 1996 interview with the Sun-Times. “You can run across people like that with just as much courage as anyone you read about in a book or see in a movie.”

Mr. Adams grew up near Maxwell Street and graduated from Crane High School. After serving in Germany in WWII, he worked for Jane Addams’ Hull House.

In 1955, he moved to the Henry Horner Homes. At that time, it was a utopia of mixed-income public housing, Lathan said.

“You had grass. The buildings were just amazing. It was new, built from the ground up,” he said. “It was integrated. There were veterans, families were working. Teachers, police, professionals.”

Believing that idle kids attracted trouble, Mr. Adams helped create a drill team that became the Hornets. There, “I learned discipline, training, skills, and relating with one another to achieve a goal,” Lathan said.

James “Major” Adams was a longtime community worker on the West Side. | Sun-Times photo
James “Major” Adams was a longtime community worker on the West Side. | Sun-Times photo

Mr Adams helped establish the Henry Horner Boys & Girls Club. Soon, he was organizing tutoring for students and re-entry programs for former inmates. He recruited the Salvation Army to provide breakfast and lunches and asked health clinics to offer medical services. He helped start midnight basketball teams and food giveaways, and prodded Rush University to hire local youths. He worked with the Chicago Police Department to get kids involved in Chicago Park District athletics.

“He kept us busy day and night,” said Bill Freeman, who grew up to serve 40 years as a police officer.

In 1996, Mr. Adams founded the Major Adams Community Committee at 125 N. Hoyne.

A viewing is planned 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday at the House of Branch Funeral Home, 3125 W. Roosevelt. A wake will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday until his 11 a.m. funeral service at Rock of Ages church, 1309 Madison St., Maywood.

He is survived by daughters Cledith Price, Diane Watts, Jerelyn Smith and Yvette Isom, and a son, Reginald.

“You wouldn’t believe — the worst kids we had sometimes turned out to be the best,” he once said. “Someone has to baby the kids in order to get anything out of them.”