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Hecky Powell, rib king and Evanston icon, has died at 71

He opened his restaurant in 1983, calling on Leon Finney Sr., one of Chicago’s most acclaimed pitmasters, for advice and relying on his own mother’s secret recipe.

Hecky Powell.
Hecky Powell.
Provided

Evanston entrepreneur and civic booster Hecky Powell, who started a mini-empire with an acclaimed rib restaurant where many teenagers landed their first jobs, died Friday at 71 after being diagnosed with the coronavirus.

The motto of Hecky’s Barbecue was “It’s the Sauce.” His smiling image and the slogan appeared on the bottles of his secret sauce that he sold in stores and shipped around the world.

Mr. Powell made thousands of pounds of ribs a week and provided catering for events including Chicago Bears and Northwestern Wildcats games.

When he opened his restaurant in 1983, he called on Leon Finney Sr., one of Chicago’s most renowned pitmasters, for advice.

“He told me to come down and talk to him,” Mr. Powell said in a 2008 Chicago Sun-Times interview. “He taught me how to buy ribs, when to buy them, how to store them. He was just incredible.”

“With Hecky passing away, a part of Evanston passes away,” said Evanston Mayor Steve Hagerty, who credited Mr. Powell with educating him on the history of the suburb when he sought his political support.

Mr. Powell started the Forrest E. Powell Foundation, named for his father, which bestowed music scholarships and vocational grants to students.

“There’s a lot of kids who don’t have the desire or ability to go to college. Hecky supported the youth,” said his sister Debbie, who said he died Friday morning.

He’d been diagnosed with the coronavirus days earlier, according to her and another sister, Patsy Powell.

“Hecky’s such an icon,” said former Evanston Ald. Delores Holmes. “He was a role model, father figure and mentor to many young people.”

Young Hecky went to Evanston Township High School and Northeastern Illinois University.

Before founding his restaurant, he was executive director of a community development group, Neighbors at Work.

When he opened Hecky’s 37 years ago, he later said, he had only $100 in the register.

Mr. Powell supported generations of kids’ sports teams and served on the Evanston/Skokie School District 65 elementary school board. He also was president of the Evanston branch of the NAACP and had an Evanston street named in his honor.

In 1996, he and then-Mayor Lorraine Morton had made a bet that Northwestern would best the University of Southern California in the Rose Bowl. When the Wildcats lost, Mr. Powell cooked ribs and chicken for the Los Angeles City Council.

His mother Verna, who worked at his restaurant at Emerson Street and Green Bay Road, was from New Orleans, according to Debbie Powell. Her Creole recipes tantalized customers and inspired his seasonings. In addition to his barbecue sauce, he sold and shipped Hecky’s spice packs.

His menu — which drew VIPS including Bear defensive tackle William “The Fridge” Perry — offered tasty greens, sweet potato fries, catfish, macaroni and cheese, barbecued turkey drumsticks and hot links.

When some neighborhood residents complained in 1988 about the strong barbecue smell near his restaurant, Mr. Powell got a loan for a smoke-scrubber and vowed he would distribute bags to customers that said: “We love Hecky’s barbecue smoke. As for the hot air at city hall, bag it!”

In 2003, he questioned school racial categories, saying that, in America, “We’re all mutts.” Some pushed back at the comments.

Mr. Powell then added dinner combos to Hecky’s menu and dubbed them “Mutts.”

Explaining his rib methodology, he told the Sun-Times it went like this: Apply a dry rub — based on his mother’s secret recipe — and follow that with 24 to 48 hours of grilling in a smoker. Then, he’d heat the sauce and slather it on.

Hecky Powell had posed for a “No Mask No Sauce” photo to help Evanston’s efforts to combat the coronavirus.
Hecky Powell had posed for a “No Mask No Sauce” photo to help Evanston’s efforts to combat the coronavirus.
Jill Norton, Tim Hogan

For a time, Mr. Powell also operated a Hecky’s at Halsted and Division streets on the North Side of Chicago and another eatery at a North Shore location, Debbie Powell said.

Years ago, Mr. Powell survived a bout of liver disease thanks to a living donor who gave him part of a liver.

The pandemic has made grieving especially hard, Debbie Powell said.

“You can’t go over and console and hug,” she said. “You have to grieve differently.”

His death underscores the scourge of the coronavirus, Hagerty said.

“If people didn’t think this pandemic was real, they got a rude awakening” as word circulated Mr. Powell was ill, Hagerty said.

Mr. Powell’s family said: “Hecky’s Barbecue will be closed for the near future. Please continue to stay safe during this unprecedented time in recent human history. This pandemic has hit home for our family and many others.”

Mr. Powell is survived by his wife Cheryl Judice, children Dawn, Terry, Sharmin, Gigi, Jason and Hecky Jr., his mother Verna and siblings Debbie, Donna, Patsy, Margie, Cookie, Raymond and Pikey.