EVANSTON, Ill. (WLS) -- Hecky Powell, the beloved founder of Hecky's Barbecue in Evanston, died of complications from the coronavirus Friday.
Powell opened his namesake restaurant nearly 40 years ago. Now the city of Evanston is mourning the loss of a legend.
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Carl LaMell first met Powell about 30 years ago.
"He was an impressive guy. He was bigger than life. He cared about people," LaMell said. "He always helped the underprivileged. If you were down and out, he was the man to help you."
Powell died early Friday morning after battling COVID-19, his longtime friends said.
"He was feeling a little weak. He was home for a couple of days and it seemed to progress and progress, and then it got harder and harder, and then he went to the hospital and that was it," LaMell said.
The Powell family is heartbroken, and said in a statement posted on the restaurant's website, "The outside world knew Hecky as a successful business owner and philanthropist in the Evanston community. However, we knew him best as the most generous and greatest father, husband, brother, son, cousin, friend and mentor anyone could ask for."
The restaurant's motto is "It's the sauce," but it's more than the good food that made it a must-visit destination for decades.
"Hecky was like a friend to everybody around him," said longtime customer Anthony Bass. "I can't believe it happened."
"He was the type of guy, if he met you on the street and you sort of hit it off with him, he would give you a card and say free meal. Stop in for a slab of ribs," LaMell said.
Powell also founded the Forrest E. Powell Foundation in honor of his father. It gives out scholarships and grants to students.
"He was a mentor to many, and he was a friend to all. The best thing I can see about my friendship with Hecky was to see how he's honored in his death," said Alderman Ann Rainey.
A memorial to "king" of Evanston was growing outside the restaurant Friday.
Evanston mayor Stephen Hagerty issued the following statement on Hecky's passingl:
"Hecky Powell was a beloved member of the Evanston community who dedicated his life to serving others - both at his famous restaurant and through his leadership in the areas of workforce and economic development, youth outreach, and mentoring.
I was proud to work with Hecky in his capacity as a member of the City's Economic Development Committee and the Mayor's Employer Advisory Council, but his work to support our community went far beyond these formal structures.
Not only did Hecky provide Evanston teens and young adults with jobs at Hecky's Barbecue, he provided countless young people with access to continuing education, training and career opportunities through initiatives he founded, including the Work Ethic Program and the Forrest E. Powell Foundation, named in honor of his father. His work to support our youth was unparalleled.
Hecky embodied the very best of Evanston, and he loved our city and its residents unconditionally. Although we will miss him dearly, we will be forever grateful for the lasting impact he made in our community.
My deepest condolences go to his beloved wife, Cheryl, his children, grandchildren, and all those who knew and loved him."