Congressman Danny K. Davis (7th) remembers James Deanes “before he got started in education.” He remembers when Deanes began marching each Saturday around the Prince of Peace Church, where he had recently joined, after learning that a group of drug-dealers was planning to take it over.
Davis was at a bricklaying ceremony last Sat., May 16, hosted by the Austin Green Team, a gardening and activist organization. The legislator was standing in the space planted by the Green Team called Heroes Park that sits at the corner of Washington and Laramie. Each year, the group etches the name of an extraordinary Chicago resident who has died into one of the bricks that comprise the garden’s walkway. Deanes, the prominent education activist who died last year, was one of four people honored with bricks this year.
“One Saturday, I thought we were going to get beat up, because the dope-dealers came out to challenge the marchers and they told the [pastor], ‘You aint’ got no jobs for these people!’ The police commander was there. They told the commander, ‘You can’t give them folks no jobs.’ The commander got so upset, he wanted to jump on the dope-dealers. We had to hold him back,” said Davis.
Davis remembers Deanes before he became senior policy advisor for local school councils. He remembers Deanes, the rabid activist and working father who became so involved in local educational issues that his employer at the time let him essentially make his own hours.
“James worked in industrial stuff,” Davis said. “Sometimes he’d be the only person in the shop because he’d have spent the rest of the time volunteering with education.”
Corey Deanes remembers the father who was often away working or volunteering (“He was always working. We had to tell him, ‘Slow down, you’re not 20 anymore.’ He did that for years”) — except when any of his five kids got into trouble. That’s when Deanes always seemed to materialize.
“He was a good dad,” the son said. “He wasn’t there all the time, but when we got into trouble, he was right there.”
George Lawson, the executive director of the Austin Green Team, said he remembers his friendly rivalry with Deanes.
“We made a deal. He wouldn’t mess with housing and I wouldn’t mess with education. I guess he knew I was a bad speller,” Lawson quipped. “But we kept that bargain in all the years we worked out here.”
Lawson’s and Deanes’s respectful rivalry even bled into baseball. Lawson had his Red Legs and Deanes had his White Sox.
“Their whole season was about beating the Red Legs,” Lawson said of the White Sox. “Deanes was the type of person who, if you talked to him or seen him, you wouldn’t think how strong he was … He had that inner strength. When he got something in mind he wanted to make happen — it happened.”
That is, anything except beating the Red Legs.
“It didn’t happen,” Lawson said, the two friends’ rivalry unabated.
Lafayette Ford, who works for the Family and Community Engagement (FACE) department in Chicago Public Schools (CPS), had known Deanes since 1979. The two worked with each other through the South Austin Anti-Crime Program. Ford remembers Deanes’s adroitness as an activist and friend.
“He was consistent,” Ford said. “You knew where he was at. He was unwavering. Sometimes he was in the front, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right. Sometimes you couldn’t see him, because he was in the back holding you up.”
Phillip Hampton, the head of FACE, said he wouldn’t be in his current position if it weren’t for Deanes mentoring him. He said Deanes was his mentor until the very end. Hampton remembers the sound of Deanes’s voice “about eight days before he died.”
“That’s the last time I had a phone conversation with him,” Hampton said. “His voice was really weak, but I could never get him to talk about his health. He was always talking about what we needed to do.”
Hampton, a South Sider, said the impact Deanes had on the West Side “is the same impact he had all across the city.”
Among all of the day’s remembrances, though, there was one memory that Davis couldn’t recall.
“George, I don’t remember the Red Legs winning,” he said, with the corner erupting in laughter.