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Principles of life from Sam Polk By Cassiette West-Williams

Jean and Sam Polk

While visiting my family in Chicago a few years ago, Mr. Sam Polk took it upon himself to be his own self-tour guide in the Hyde Park community. The area is famous for where President  Barack Obama’s young family lived with his wife, native Chicagoan Atty. Michelle Obama and their two daughters. he streets are blocked by the Chicago Policemen, who protect and patrol that particular area of the city, ensuring that no violence takes place there. One cannot simply drive by the Obama’s home because those streets have been blocked with cement structures and law enforcement. Those structures in place were not going to stop Mr. Polk from trying to tour “his president’s” house. After all, this was Sam Polk from Peoria, who quietly worked behind the scenes to influence and change the political structure in his hometown. President Obama had been a community organizer, and certainly, he would understand why Mr. Polk wanted to share the same space, to learn more about leadership and bettering our people. He was very impressed with President Obama’s resolve to improve America, despite the challenges that we face collectively.

The Chicago Police were startled that a Black man would drive up and approach them on this matter. They wanted to apologize (because he was from out of town) that we could not drive up and come in to tour the house, view his artifacts, or review his manuscripts and book collection. I just knew that we were going to be arrested because no one approaches the cops over there, but not the Obama-seeking Mr. Polk. He had no fear, no filter, no limits on what it was going to take to bring our people justice, equality in major areas (housing, education, labor, and employment), and dignity for living a decent life with respect. He was a stand-up type of man who said what he meant and stood by it. Period!

A Black man without fear was not the type of person that the Chicago Police or many others were accustomed to working with in our society. Mr. Polk was proud of his heritage and sought to make younger people aware that we are indeed queens and kings and that we were to carry ourselves in that manner. He was the unofficial “career coach” who sought to bring out excellence within the Black community locally and abroad. He reminded me that wherever I was working or seeking to have an impact on society, to remember that many Black folks paved the way for me to enter a college, live in a diverse community, and apply for positions that would actually hire Black candidates and promote them. Somebody had already been down that road, and my job was to add distance to the area that had already been traveled.  Mr. Polk said that it was not about “me and my career,” but rather what I was doing to enhance someone else’s life. Was I going the extra mile to teach, feed, clothe, support and encourage my scholars? Or did I turn my nose up and walk away from them while collecting my paycheck and living my life? That is not living my best life, as the song says. That is living a self-centered life that will not benefit our people or further our culture.  

Even though I was running my mouth a mile a minute, in quiet times, I listened to the Polk’s (Sam and his wife Jean) and replayed in my mind, how to improve myself? What did I need to do to accomplish the goals that meant the most to me? How did they manage to have the strength and foundation to stand on when people shunned them or focused only on what was good for them?  I wondered how did he work more than 45 years for the Peoria Public Works Department and not quit? Quitting was just not part of his character. Quit for what? You are eventually the loser when you walk away from some trying moments because living life takes sacrifice and patience, he would remind me.  I was slow to listen, but I eventually came around to agree with his wisdom.

Growing up, I saw my parents’ quit each other. My mother became a divorced woman with three children to raise on one salary. My father rarely sent child support and did not visit us regularly. The older we grew, the further away he was from our lives. My brothers gave me away at my wedding because he was nowhere around. Mr. and Mrs. Polk stood up and stepped into my life as my daughter’s Godparents and local grandparents. The Polk’s made it clear that they were not ever walking away from my family, no matter what happened in our lives. Many years after my divorce, the Polk’s kept returning to Chicago to check in on us. They knew we lived in the inner city, on one salary, and checked to see if we had the things we needed, like food, water, tuition paid for Tamer Lee’s Catholic education, and music (violin and voice) lessons. Mr. Polk would often take us out to fancy restaurants in the suburbs and order several plates of food, so Tamer Lee and I could eat WELL the rest of the week! It was like Christmas when they came and visited because we attended mass together at the Faith Community of Saint Sabina, and then went out for dinner. I also observed how Mr. Polk took notes from Chicago Civil Rights icon, the Rev. Dr. Michael Louis Pfleger, as he agreed with many of the ideas that Pfleger expressed in the pulpit. Mr. Polk drove more than six hours round trip to church in the spring and summer and used the leadership style and teachings as his personal classroom. Church was not just a Sunday obligation, but something to extend during the week to study and put into practice in our daily lives. I would send him the CDs from Pastor Pfleger’s sermons when they could not return to Chicago. Mr. Polk’s faith was unshaken, and from this foundation, he stood tall.

With the transition of Civil Rights icon Sam Polk, one can only pray that younger people will be vested in the local community and continue to strive for the principles in life that Mr. Polk taught us.

Mr. Sam Polk transitioned the same week that the Obama Presidential Center groundbreaking took place. How ironic is it that Former President Barack Obama is opening a center and library to cultivate young community activists and organizers? This is just the type of community-centered facility that Mr. Polk wanted for young people in Peoria, so they could soak up all of this knowledge and astound the world someday. He passed on September 17, after a brief illness. Mr. Polk has joined our ancestors in heaven and is probably meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as we speak. Ase.