Courthouse sage Jimmie A. Swift Jr. dies at 84

SHARE Courthouse sage Jimmie A. Swift Jr. dies at 84

Jimmie A. Swift Jr. | Provided photo

It didn’t matter if you were a high-priced defense attorney, a defendant, a crime victim, a police officer or a prosecutor.

Jimmie Swift treated everybody the same at the cafe he operated for 30 years on the first floor of the criminal courthouse at 26th and California.

A sociologist might have compared it to a watering hole where an uneasy detente existed between predator and preyed-upon. Both camps could get a hot coffee and a good Polish sausage at his spot, dubbed “Gangbangers’ Cafe” or “Gangbangers’ Lounge” by courthouse regulars. It shut down when Mr. Swift retired a couple of years ago.

“When they closed it, the building lost a piece of history,” said Joe “the Shark” Lopez, a defense attorney whose cellphone answers callers with this personally recorded message: “If the police are at your door or you’ve been stopped, do not sign any consent-to-search form. Do not make any statements. And please, be courteous.”

Another defense attorney known for rending witnesses limb-from-limb softened when asked about Mr. Swift. “He was a wonderful man,” Edward M. Genson said. “He would talk to you, [say] ‘Everything’s great; it’s going to be a good day; where are you on trial today?’ ”

Mr. Swift, 84, died on June 20. Legally blind, he owned and managed the cafe through a rehabilitative program of the Illinois Department of Human Services.


Jimmie A. Swift Jr. | Provided photo

He could see well enough to catch tricky customers, said Lakeshia Woodruff, manager of Central Bond Court. If somebody arrived at the register with 10 packs of gum — but told Mr. Swift there were only six — he’d say, “ ‘Who do those other four packs belong to?’ ’’

For some young men, “He was kind of a father figure,” said Lamortto Wofford, a supervisor in Adult Probation. Mr. Swift would greet them with, “ ‘What are you back here again for?’ ”

If they were accompanied by their mothers, he’d say to the women, “ ‘That boy messin’ up again?’ ”

At breakfast, people stopped in to get grits and bacon-and-egg sandwiches. When it was cold, they lined up for his chili instead of venturing outside to order from catering vans nicknamed “roach coaches.”

“It was amazing to see him get the hot dog from the hot-dog maker, and put it on a bun,” Lopez said. “He knew every inch of that place.”

“When it came to business, he didn’t miss counting a penny,” said Judge Marjorie C. Laws, a presiding judge at the Markham courthouse.

At Jimmie’s, lawyers might engage in public relations work, according to defense attorney Sam Adam Jr. When prospective jurors were around, he and his father, lawyer Sam Adam Sr., “would always make it a point to go down to Jimmie’s, talk to Jimmie, and let the jurors see my father and me just being regular.”

Sometimes, Wofford said, a guard would tease Mr. Swift, telling him, “ ‘Jimmie, I’d whup your butt, but you’re too old.’ ’’

He’d retort, “Whip my butt to the age you want me to be, and I’ll take over from there.’’

“He loved that place; the people,” said Velma, Mr. Swift’s wife of 25 years.

As a boy, he scrapped with a bully, while his brother, Joseph, urged, “Hit him with a bolo punch!” That led to his nickname, “Jimbolo.” He liked roller-skating at the Savoy Ballroom on 4733 S. Parkway, now Martin Luther King Drive.

He attended Wendell Phillips High School and worked in construction.

“He never depended on assistance,” said his son, Jimmie Swift III.

A skilled self-taught bass guitarist, Mr. Swift wore a derby and black cape when he played with bands, calling himself “the Baron” to set himself apart onstage, his son said.

Family lore has it that Duke Ellington’s agent once stopped by Mr. Swift’s house, saying, “I heard the best bass man on the South Side of Chicago lives here.” A “goofy girlfriend” who didn’t want him to go on the road told the agent he was retired and sent him on his way, his son said.

Mr. Swift belonged to a bowling league for the visually impaired, where he met his wife.

“He loved jazz and Mayor Harold Washington,” said Judge Evelyn Clay, who hosted his retirement party in her courtroom. “Everybody loved Jimmie.”

Mr. Swift also is survived by another son, Joseph Swift; a stepdaughter, Theresa Metcalfe; nine grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

Services were held Saturday. Though the cafe is gone, “this place will always be known as Jimmie’s,” Woodruff said.

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