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Joe Cole: Founder of 'Black YMCA' in days of segregation

In Obituaries

5:14 pm on Sun, 05.20.12

Joe Cole, who was best known and often lauded for the Christian youth organization he built for African-American children who were barred from their local YMCA in the early ‘50s, died May 13, 2012, of heart failure in Chapin, S.C., where he’d recently gone to live with his youngest daughter. He was 94.

He was diabetic and had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, said his son, Enoch, with whom he had shared a home for the past 10 years.

Joe Cole
Photos provided
Joe Cole

In 1951, Mr. Cole founded Club 44 — "4 God and 4 Country" — at the old Turner School in Meacham Park before it became part of Kirkwood. He started with about 50 boys — the club soon became co-ed — and the ability to draw people to his cause.

“If he got something in his head that he thought needed to happen, it was going to happen,” said Michael Gibbons, a former Missouri state senator, now an attorney in private practice.  “He was persistent and persuasive about things he thought were important.”

A funeral Mass for Mr. Cole will be celebrated at 10 a.m. on Monday (May 21) at St. Peter Catholic Church in Kirkwood.

“He was the heart and soul of that organization because he believed in kids,” Gibbons said.

No barriers

Meacham Park, a small enclave nestled snugly against Kirkwood’s southeast corner until its incorporation in 1992, had been predominantly white from its founding in 1892 until after World War I.  By the time the Cole family arrived in 1920, Meacham Park was well on its way to becoming predominantly black and facing racial issues that plagued the nation.

Segregation and racial unrest posed no obstacles to Mr. Cole. 

One of his closest friends was Earl Walker, founder of Carr Lane Manufacturing Company.  Mr. Walker, who died last year, was white; Mr. Cole was black. The two grew up a few blocks and a world apart, but formed a lifelong bond.   

Club 44 participated in many public events.
Club 44 participated in many public events.

In 1954, Club 44 began using the facilities of the once-off limits Kirkwood YMCA. It happened after Mr. Cole handed over $10,000 he had received from the United Fund (now United Way of Greater St. Louis). 

That’s how he handled obstacles.  He acknowledged racism, but refused to admit he ever experienced it. 

“Joe had to have experienced something,” Gibbons said, “but he chose not to see it. There was never a barrier, never an excuse, never a reason not to do something. He just pushed on.”

One of his greatest challenges came in February of 2008.

He was among the hundreds of mourners for Charles Lee “Cookie” Thornton, a lifelong friend who killed several Kirkwood City Council members before he was shot and killed by police. 

After Thornton’s funeral service, Mr. Cole told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he would always remember the "Cookie" Thornton beloved by his community, not Charles Thornton, the man consumed by rage.

"Cookie is not dead. Charles is dead." 

Club 44

The ongoing challenge was ensuring that thousands of youngsters find productive outlets for their energy.

No one knew exactly how many were redirected. In 1992, Mr. Cole gave the Post-Dispatch an estimate of “3,000 plus.” 

"That's just the number of kids I can identify by name in my photos," he said in an interview. "I couldn't begin to guess accurately how many thousands there have been."

Twenty years later, no one disputes that Club 44 has seen many more come through. 

There were summer camps, a year-round food program and sports teams.  He created neighborhood work programs — cutting lawns, washing windows, cleaning basements — and helped kids get local government jobs. Mr. Cole loved a parade, so youths were enlisted to build floats and some got to ride. 

Youngsters even tore down dilapidated and sometime dangerous houses.

The demolitions enabled Mr. Cole to buy a used bus and many of the projects earned the participants  their “bus fare” for cross-country trips to such places as former U.s. Sen. John Danforth’s office in Washington, D.C., Motown’s Hitsville USA in Detroit, the Empire State Building in New York and the wide open spaces of Colorado.

“The youngsters would choose where they wanted to go and work to pay for it,” said Barbara Byerly, a longtime friend and owner of BJB Creative Services.  “Joe felt it was very important for them to understand there’s a wide world out there.”

For every patriotic holiday, youths were dispatched to place hundreds of flags in front of participating businesses identified by the Kirkwood-Des Peres Area Chamber of Commerce. 

“Joe understood the importance of the business community,” said Jim Wright, president of the Chamber.  “He knew that quality businesses in the community make it stronger and he shared that with the kids.”

The Club’s programs and activities were also funded by Mr. Cole’s annual recognition dinners that brought out political and community leaders. 

'Work’n’ Joe'

Mr. Cole received numerous honors for his work with children, including the Chamber’s 1967 Citizen of the Year Award and the 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award.

Cole accepts one of many humanitarian awards.
Cole accepts one of many humanitarian awards.

He began the club as a volunteer effort while working for several Kirkwood businesses, including Rexall Drug Stores. He spent 14 years as administrative assistant to former St. Louis County Executive Gene McNary, and served on the Kirkwood police force.

Sister Helen Santamaria, SL, a former principal of Nerinx Hall, provided him with a job reference.

“When (the police) called me, I gave him a raving review,” said Sister Santamaria from El Paso, Texas, where she now heads a women’s homeless shelter and leads a Club 44 branch.  “He went through training, but he refused to wear a gun.  He served as a community relations officer.”

Sister Santamaria said she met Mr. Cole 44 years ago this month to talk about Club 44. 

“I was looking for a team for the Nerinx girls and Joe was looking for someone to take over his girls’ softball coaching duties,” she said. “I didn’t know a thing about softball, but I coached the Meacham Park team to two wins.”

Mr. Cole became a co-member of the Sisters of Loretto and often had lunch with the nuns.

“He was an honorary nun,” said Sister Santamaria. “He always said he wanted to be buried in a habit.”

Over the years, Club 44 was the constant in his life and he eventually worked with the program fulltime through the “Y.”

Cora Mae Garrison, who handles member services part-time for the YMCA, said Mr. Cole is listed in its computer system as “Workin’ Joe” and was proud of it.

Until recently Garrison said, “He came in almost every day.” 

Like many in Kirkwood, Garrison said she’s known Mr. Cole most of her life, which means she knows something else he freely shared: “He was an avid Republican and wanted everybody to know it.”

He remained a Republican long after most African-Americans chose to become Democrats. 

“He was an unbelievable Republican, like his father ‘Papa Cole,’” said his son, Enoch. 

Mr. Cole worked diligently on behalf of the candidates he supported and was loyal.  That gave him easy access to the likes of John Ashcroft and John Danforth, when both were U.S. senators and when Ashcroft was governor of Missouri.

“Ashcroft made a point to be at the annual dinners almost every year he was governor,” Gibbons said.  “And when Joe would go to Jefferson City, he just pretty much walked in.”

His political leanings proved to be Gibbons’ good fortune.  Mr. Cole  cajoled him into politics. 

I never would have done it had it not been for Joe,” Gibbons said.  “When he first brought it up, I thought it was nuts, but the more he talked about it, the more it made sense to me.

“I didn’t have the self-confidence to step out on my own,” Gibbons continued, “but Joe was there with me every step of the way.  He was an important part of every one of my races, which all worked out great except the last one.  (Gibbons lost his bid for Missouri attorney general in 2008.)

The Right Stuff

Enoch Joseph Cole was born April 14, 1918 in Roe, Ark.  Two years later, his parents, Enoch Joseph Cole and Annie Brown Cole, moved the family by horse and wagon to Meacham Park.  When he was 7, his mother died of pneumonia. His father married Katie Bullock-Pressley in 1930.

Mr. Cole attended old Douglass High School in Webster Groves, then the largest and only accredited public high school for African Americans in the St. Louis area.  He joined the Army during World War II and served stateside. 

Mr. Cole was preceded in death by his wife, Rose Delores Bailey Cole, who helped form Club 44; one son, Rusinel Cole; his parents; six sisters and three stepbrothers.

His survivors include his children, Julian (Patricia), Atlanta; Morris (Maria) Cole, St. Peters;  Enoch Cole, Kirkwood; Chester Cole, Maplewood;  James Clinton “Clem” Cole, Oakland, Calif., and Anita Rosenette (Noel) Husbands, Chapin, S.C. He is also survived by two sisters, Gladys Jenkins and Addie Wallace, both of Oakland, Calif.

Visitation for Mr. Cole will be Sunday from 4-8 p.m. at Bopp Chapel, 10610 Manchester Road., in Kirkwood. Funeral services will be Monday (May 21) at 10 a.m. at St. Peter Catholic Church, 243 W. Argonne Dr., in Kirkwood.  Interment in National Cemetery.

If desired, the Cole family would appreciate contributions to help college students pay for books: Kirkwood Family YMCA, The Joe Cole Book Scholarship, Attention: Eric Tucker, Executive Director, 325 N. Taylor Ave., Kirkwood, Mo. 63122.

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