ABOVE PHOTO: Congressman Dwight Evans (D-PA-3rd) (Photo by Zachary Emerson)
By Amy V. Simmons
The wind plays a significant role in many cultures and traditions throughout the world — it is a force that brings life, growth, disruption, wisdom, and change. In some Christian circles, it is sometimes likened to the Holy Spirit. Even in secular and scientific circles, the wind and its properties are a force that is respected for its sheer power.
Last Saturday, around 100 people were on hand as the 6600 block of Germantown Avenue was officially renamed as J. Whyatt Mondesire Way. Hundreds more watched the event via Facebook Live. A steady wind blew throughout the ceremony — at times noticeably so.
The street renaming and ceremony — which was passed unanimously by City Council in December 2019 — was postponed last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Life, growth, disruption, wisdom, change and power…themes that seem to correspond with the life and times of Jerry Mondesire himself.
Catherine Hicks — who was Mondesire’s fiancée and colleague — is his successor at the SUN, along with his son Joseph. She is also president of the NAACP Philadelphia Branch, an office that he also held.
After paying tribute to Councilmember Cindy Bass (D-8th Dist.) and former Councilmember Blondell Reynolds Brown (D- At-Large), who were responsible for introducing the street renaming resolution, Hicks reflected on Mondesire’s life, and what he meant to her personally, the community and the city.
It is important to keep his legacy going, and that legacy includes the Philadelphia Sunday SUN and the NAACP Philadelphia Branch, which were both a huge part of his life, she said.
“I want to make sure that we join as a community, and we get together to make sure that, again — something that he loved so much — that we honor [it] and that we do our best,” Hicks said.
Mondesire’s son Joseph also paid tribute to the man who was not only his father, but increasingly as the years went by, a friend as well. He reminded the attendees about the tasks that lie ahead.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. “Continue to register to vote, continue to urge all of the community to enroll and register for the NAACP, and take memberships out for the SUN. Equip yourselves with factual information.”
Mondesire’s friend and colleague Loraine Ballard Morrill, director of news and community affairs for iHeartMedia Philadelphia served as MC for the event.
Several speakers at the event spoke about how Mondesire’s unconventional communication style could at times rankle them yet challenge them as well.
One of them was Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church Senior Pastor Alyn E. Waller, who presented remarks and delivered the invocation for the event.
“I’ve been in this city for 27 years, and so when I first came, I did not know all of the leaders — I did not know everybody,” Waller said. “Not long after I got here, I was invited to an economic development program that Pastor Hall was doing. A lot of preachers showed up, and this guy. His name was Jerry Mondesire, but I didn’t know [it] yet. So, I’m in the room, and this guy is telling these preachers — basically telling them off — and telling them what they better do. Now, I’m a new preacher, and I’m saying to myself, ‘Who is he, why is he talking to them like that? More importantly, why are they letting him?’ [Then] I said to myself ‘He’s [not] going talk to me that way.’”
However, Waller soon discovered that the rough speech was Mondesire’s way of galvanizing and challenging leaders to take decisive action in the community — a lesson that he has never forgotten.
A man of action and resolve
Another theme that seemed prevalent throughout the remembrances shared ceremony was Mondesire’s stubborn determination.
Councilmember Helen Gym shared a memory about the time that she, Mondesire and others decided to crash the annual Christmas Tree Lighting parade in Center City in protest of the then proposed state takeover of the Philadelphia public school system. Many in the media were upset that the protest was upstaging the hallowed tradition and ruining it for the suburbanites and others who were there to enjoy it, she said.
“We took that whole thing down,” she said. We marched right through it… And I remember when the media put their cameras in their face and said, ‘How could you do this to our Christmas tree lighting,’ he [Mondesire] turned that around and said ‘What is the state doing to our children in this moment?’”
Ballard Morrill recalled another occasion where Mondesire took the lead in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A group of local radio stations decided to join the massive recovery effort.
They packed a 10,000 square foot warehouse of donated supplies into a tractor trailer and headed for a small town in Mississippi.
Mondesire drove the group down separately. They needed to travel from New Orleans to the motel where they were staying — accommodations were sparse due to a huge volunteer response — but did not have much time to get there.
It was a harrowing experience at the time, especially considering that all of this was taking place in Mississippi, Ballard Morrill said.
“He was going 100 miles an hour, I’m not kidding you, 100 miles an hour, with one hand on the wheel, and another hand smoking a cigar,” she said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re gonna get pulled over!’ But you know what? We did not get pulled over, and I just have to say, The Lord was looking kindly upon us that day.”
A mentor, friend, and inspiration
Mentoring was Mondesire’s life blood — he had a keen sense that the past, present and future were all equally important.
Sheriff Rochelle Bilal shared that one of Mondesire’s first acts in that mentorship role was to make her join the NAACP. He then encouraged her to take that commitment further by running for the position of board secretary, which she won.
“Some people may not have liked Jerry, but one thing I knew about him — he was effective,” Bilal said. “He made sure that everything that went on in this city had to include the NAACP of Philadelphia.”
When ShopRIte owner Jeff Brown decided that he was going to open up grocery stores in every part of the city, Mondesire was one of the first people he talked to. The two men shared a friendship that spanned over 30 years, and Brown admired Mondesire’s ability to speak truth to power.
“When I saw him do that, I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I could ever do that like Jerry does,’ but he was a good mentor,” Brown said. “He had a lot of guts — no one was too powerful for him to stand up for people that were voiceless.”
“He was my brother,” said longtime Philadelphia broadcaster Thera Martin. “He allowed me to stand on his shoulders, even when I didn’t think my ability was as good as it could have been or should have been. He believed in me — he was sending me all kinds of job leads for TV and radio at a national level, like ‘Jerry, you’re crazy, I’m not good enough to do that!’ But he was just there for me all along, and I thank God that He placed Jerry in my life.”
WHYY host Cherri Gregg also paid homage to Mondesire’s role as a mentor.
“I met Jerry in 2009, when I was a freelance journalist — this is before my days at KYW,” Gregg said. “I was doing this little story. It was bad. It was really bad.
And Jerry sat for an interview right there in the SUN building,” she said, gesturing toward it.
However, Mondesire was not one to give up on people that he felt were diamonds in the rough.
Later, when Gregg worked at KYW, he pitched stories to her that were important to the community that he did not want to see swept under the rug.
“He helped me decipher the Philadelphia landmines, because I’m a DC girl living in Philadelphia, and Jerry was one of the first people to speak up on any type of injustice in Philadelphia,” Gregg said. “Much of my coverage came from a nudge in the early years from Jerry saying, ‘Hey, young lady, you need to pay attention to this.’”
Mondesire’s mentorship also led Gregg to run for the office of president at the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, she said.
“He told me to do it, “she said. “He was like, ‘it’s time — you can lead this organization.’”
SUN COO Leah Fletcher recalled when she first met Mondesire about 35 years when he was hosting “Black Perspective on the News,” an African American centered news program that took on topics that mainstream media shied away from, along with the late great Reggie Bryant — another legendary firebrand in Philadelphia’s African American media community. The guest that day was the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
“It was really interesting in terms of the conversation in the green room before the show when they announced who the speaker was, and I have to say, Jerry handled himself with great aplomb,” Fletcher said. “We talked about how we were going to question this person, what the issues were. … I would say we did a groundbreaking job because it was a very controversial topic.”
Fletcher expanded upon the theme of Jerry’s advocacy for the things he believed in — especially when it came down to his staff at the SUN, in whom he had the utmost confidence and trust.
She also shared how his commitment to the community at large was sometimes demonstrated discreetly.
“It was [sometimes for] a funeral that he might pay for out of his pocket when some community member knocked on the SUN door because they didn’t have money to bury a loved one, [or on another occasion] where they didn’t have money for college, where even a few $100 more would help to pay college tuition,” Fletcher recalled. “
That was just a side of Jerry that lived his credo.”
The work that remains
Others that shared how Mondesire influenced them, the difference he made in the community and the work that is left to do were U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D-3rd Dist.), State Sen. Sharif Street (D-3rd Dist.), State Rep. Darisha Parker (D- 198th Dist.), poet Cheryl Jones, the Rev. Dr. Lorina Marshall-Blake, vice president of community affairs for Independence Blue Cross and president of the Independence Blue Cross Foundation and Veronica Norris — a close friend and the NAACP Philadelphia Branch’s ACT-SO competition co-chair.
ACT-SO — which stands for Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics — was a program that was especially important to Mondesire. ACT-SO winners contributed musical selections throughout the ceremony.
Directly following Bass’s reading of the official renaming proclamation, Mondesire’s friends, family and colleagues gathered at the foot of the street sign. A final push from the ever-present wind — a wind as persistent and bold as Jerry himself — lifted a bouquet of balloons that they released into the autumn sky, where it seemed to linger for just a moment before being carried out of view.
J. Whyatt Mondesire Way is a block that has experienced tremendous change in the years since his passing, including the relocation of the SUN office and many business closings. In addition, multiple development projects have taken shape — including one that houses an African American owned supermarket.
It is a block and neighborhood in transition. What it — and the rest of the city — becomes in the future will require oversight, involvement, and a commitment not only to what it will become, but respect for what it was.
With the street renaming, Mondesire’s presence has been permanently acknowledged and, I’m sure, will never be far from the action.
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