James William Meeks reared three Sunday school teachers and the Rev. James T. Meeks, founder of Salem Baptist, the biggest African-American church in Illinois, with an estimated 15,000 members.
Mr. Meeks, 90, died on Dec. 24 at his home in South Holland.
He grew up the son of Annie and Charlie Meeks in the Mississippi Delta town of Carrollton.
In 1947, he was working as a short-order cook at a hotel in Grenada, Mississippi. His fiancee, Esther Mae Smith, was a hotel maid. They married at the courthouse on their lunch break.
Five years later they joined relatives who had migrated north to Chicago, where Mr. Meeks landed a job at Kentile Floors. A forklift operator, he worked there from 1952 to 1992.
He had a crushing handshake from decades of farm and manual labor in Mississippi and Chicago. Young men at Salem Baptist said it reminded them “Daddy” Meeks would be watching if they even thought of hanging around street corners.
At a celebration of his life on Saturday at Salem Baptist’s House of Hope, 752 E. 114th St., church members said they’ll remember his religious devotion and unwavering ethical standards, as well as his humor and plainspoken style.
Bishop Larry Trotter remembered Mr. Meeks’ forthright incredulity when he learned his son was planning to go fishing in the Bahamas. “That’s a fool’s idea,” he told Rev. Meeks. “You all going to pass all this water called Lake Michigan, take a plane and pay out for a hotel to fish — and you might not catch anything!”
And the Rev. Jesse Jackson recalled Mr. Meeks’ wry response when Jackson was preparing to go to jail during a protest.
“Somebody need to be out the jail to get you out,” the elder Meeks told Jackson. “I’m with you all the way, Reverend, except the jail part.”
And, if his son’s sermons went on just a little too long, Mr. Meeks wasn’t above a firm and well-timed “That’s enough,” from his seat, recalled Deacon James Brooks.
When his kids were growing up, they attended Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, where Mr. Meeks became a deacon in 1957. “He did not bring us to church and drop us off,” Rev. Meeks said at his father’s service. “As a matter of fact, we were the last people to leave church.”
Rev. Meeks — also a former state senator — often credits his father with helping him get his start as a preacher, according to Tasha Harris, a spokesperson for Salem Baptist Church. When he first planned to lease space for a church, the landlord was reluctant due to the pastor’s young age. But he relented because he saw the elder Meeks’ belief in his son, Harris said.
And Mr. Meeks was protective of his children, his son said in his eulogy. When his teen-age daughter Annie worked at a Kresge’s at 63rd and Halsted, he’d pick her up after her shift so she wouldn’t have to take the bus at night.
Before he became a preacher, Rev. Meeks worked as a CTA ticket agent. At one point, he was assigned to the night shift at 63rd and University, a job he said made him nervous because there had been a string of robberies at the station.
One night, Rev. Meeks said he heard footsteps nearby — and braced for the worst.
Instead, his father appeared before him and said, “ ‘Son, I couldn’t rest at home, knowing you were up here.’ Then he opened his coat,” Rev. Meeks said, to show his son a gun. Mr. Meeks called it “Old Charlie.”
“He’s like, ‘Got old Charlie with me,’ ” Rev. Meeks said. “And he sat on that bench outside of the ticket booth from 11:30 till 7 in the morning.”
Rev. Meeks also remembered the time his father was summoned to a teacher conference because of his son’s misbehavior. When they left the classroom, the elder Meeks told his son he wasn’t equipped to help much with math or science homework.
But, Rev. Meeks recalled, “He said son, I don’t need no help in teaching you how to mind. You [are] gonna mind this teacher.”
And, the pastor said, he did.
In addition to his wife Esther, daughter Annie, and son James, Mr. Meeks is survived by his daughter Delores and son William; sisters Bobbie and Minnie; brother Edward; 10 grandchildren, 15 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.