Kirkwood's Joe Cole: 1918-2012

Longtime community leader, Club 44 founder dies at age 94

Mr. Cole Times file photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
May 18, 2012
Joe Enoch Cole, 94, one of Kirkwood's most recognized citizens, died Sunday, May 13, 2012. Mr. Cole was in South Carolina visiting his daughter when he fell ill.

Mr. Cole lived in Kirkwood nearly his whole life. He is most well known for his work with Club 44, a Kirkwood-based Christian youth organization he founded in 1954. The club operates in conjunction with the Kirkwood-Webster YMCA and has been a resource for hundreds of youth in its nearly 60 years in existence.

"If you talk to any male 50 years of age and older, all of them will tell you what Joe Cole did for them," said Kirkwood resident Genevieve Hodges. "He taught them how to be young men, how to work, how to make things, how to cut grass - that's the story really about Joe: being instrumental in seeing the need and cultivating the young people, especially the males."

Mr. Cole was born in Clinton, Ark., on April 14, 1918, and settled in St. Louis with his family shortly thereafter. After his mother died in childbirth when he was 7 years old, Mr. Cole and his family made the move to Kirkwood in a horse-drawn wagon.

Mr. Cole grew up in the Meacham Park neighborhood of Kirkwood, which was then part of unincorporated St. Louis County. One of his closest friends was philanthropist Earl Walker, who died in August 2011. The two grew up just a few blocks from one another and formed a lifelong friendship.

"Club 44 was the best thing that happened for the young people in Kirkwood and Joe Cole is the best thing that happened to Kirkwood," Mr. Walker said in a 2007 interview.

In 1939, Mr. Cole graduated from Douglass High School. He worked for several Kirkwood businesses over the years and became Kirkwood's first African-American police officer in 1968. He was a World War II veteran.

Mr. Cole married his wife, Rose, in 1967, and together they raised seven children: Rushnell, Morris, Julian, Enoch, Chester, Clem and Rosenette.

Mr. Cole was a lifelong leader to those living in Meacham Park, said Kirkwood resident Ron Hodges.

Joe Cole, right, walks with former Kirkwood High School principal Dave Holley and Mr. Cole's longtime friend, philanthropist Earl Walker (center), at the 2007 dedication of the high school's Earl and Myrtle Walker Science Center. file photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
"Joe's been a big inspiration in this community for a lot of years," he said. "He's helped many kids with Club 44 and even before then. He was very instrumental in making things happen in Meacham Park."

Genevieve Hodges remembered a time when Meacham Park residents had very few services, and the impact Mr. Cole had on improving the neighborhood.

"Before they built the actual Turner School, they had a little shanty there," she said. "When they built the school he was instrumental in forming the first Boy Scouts there, and he brought the 4H Club there."

Hodges said Mr. Cole, along with other neighbors, cleared several areas in Meacham Park and built playgrounds for the children.

Mr. Cole was involved in government on the state and local level, and was known statewide as a tireless community volunteer. He served on Missouri's Advisory Council on Aging for seven years during John Ashcroft's two terms as Missouri governor (1985-1993), and campaigned on behalf of John Danforth during his successful bid to become Missouri attorney general in 1968.

"I know of no other person who could just walk into the governor's office, or the county executive's office, or the office of the mayor of a municipality, and say, 'I need to speak to them,'" said former Kirkwood mayor Herb Jones. "And he was welcomed and they listened to what he said, including me, when I was mayor of Kirkwood. He had that ability and that rapport with leadership all over the state of Missouri."

In 1967, Mr. Cole was named Citizen of the Year by the Kirkwood-Des Peres Area Chamber of Commerce. In 2007, he received the chamber's Lifetime Achievement Award. Then Gov. Matt Blunt sent a proclamation in his honor, as did the Missouri House and Senate.

Locally, Mr. Cole was a source of counsel for a succession of Kirkwood public servants, some of whom he'd known their whole lives.

"You can't live in this town and be connected with City Hall and not have Joe Cole find you out and start a relationship," said Kirkwood Chief Administrative Officer Mike Brown.

Brown considered Mr. Cole not just a longtime colleague, but a friend. He said Mr. Cole also had a special relationship with the Sisters of Loretto, who were active with Club 44.

"We just palled around a lot," said Brown. "We'd go to Mass on Sundays frequently and have breakfast with the Sisters. That was a special time.

"He really did give me a lot of advice on things such as kids programs, church, race relations and history - and always how I should do my job," said Brown. "I made him my unofficial assistant and I even got him some business cards a few years back just to prove it. He loved that. I'm going to miss him terribly."

Jones, who had known Mr. Cole since he was a child, said he was a unique, lovable person.

"He had a great impact on Kirkwood, particularly on Meacham Park and generations of young kids growing up in Meacham Park, through Club 44," he said.

"There is just no other person I've ever known who had the ability that Joe Cole did," said Jones. "And of course he grew up in a time when blacks did not have a strong voice in what happened in the world. Joe was able to overcome that, and he certainly influenced the people around him and the people of Kirkwood and St. Louis. He was a good friend to me and to hundreds of others. He will be sorely missed."

Visitation will be held Sunday, May 20, 4 to 8 p.m., at Bopp Chapel, 10610 Manchester Road in Kirkwood. A funeral Mass will be celebrated Monday, May 21, 10 a.m., at St. Peter Catholic Church, 243 W. Argonne. Interment, Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.

Some information for this story was previously published in a Webster-Kirkwood Times article by Barb Byerly.

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