Family, friends mourn Demspey Travis

July 3, 2009 5:08:52 PM PDT
Civil rights activist, author, entrepreneur and businessman are only a few of the titles held by Dempsey Travis.Travis climbed from meager means to become one of Chicago's most prominent citizens. Travis died on Thursday at the age of 89.

Dempsey Travis knew about barriers because he kept knocking them down over his 89 years. Poverty, prejudice would not deter whatever he chose to pursue.

"He probably made a decision. Nothing can take your joy. He had a tough skin. He could handle it," said Matilda O'Conner, Travis' niece.

Travis became an enormously successful real estate executive. Presidents knew him and sought his opinions.

When Harold Washington ran for mayor of Chicago in 1983, Dempsey Travis is one of the reasons he won.

"Dempsey Travis played a roll by bringing money to the table. He and others showed that there was black money to support a black candidate," said Laura Washington, Sun-Times columnist.

Travis was a jazz aficionado, known to some big names like Calloway and Gillespie. He wrote about jazz and he could play it.

"He loved to work. He told us, in his words, you have plenty of time to sleep when you're dead," said Ruthie Smith, employee and friend.

The people who worked for him say he could be a taskmaster, but never without a sense of humor or mission.

"In his personal time he was always thinking. If he had an idea in the middle of the night, he'd put it on paper, and what you see is the product of that effort," said Kathy Maufas, employee and friend.

Dempsey Travis wrote over two dozen books about life, about racism, about music, about politics. He was both making while writing about it.

"He had many achievements that went far beyond what others had done but he always wanted to tell those stories so he wrote many books about black Chicago, Harold Washington Roosevelt University. He wanted to tell history while making stories himself," said O'Connor.

Mr. Travis set up a scholarship program that ultimately benefited hundreds of young people over the years. His message to them is perhaps best embodied in the title of his 1992 autobiography - "I Refuse To Learn To Fail."


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