Neil Heinen: Dr. John Y. Odom embodied the concept of ‘elder’
'I can't imagine Madison without him,' says retired WISC-TV and Madison Magazine editorial director.
I don’t remember when I first met Dr. John Y. Odom. Likewise I can’t remember doing the work of editorial director for WISC-TV and Madison Magazine without his counsel, criticism, and ultimately his friendship. What I do know is at some point in the last 20 years, John decided he trusted and respected me enough to reach out to me, sometimes to compliment me, sometimes to chide me and point out the errors of my thinking if not my ways. I was appreciative, even honored, for I returned that trust and respect. His death leaves a hole in my life. Even in retirement I can’t imagine Madison without him.
In many ways he embodied the concept of “elder.” In many ways but one perhaps: his style, vigor, joyfulness and intellectual energy were a clear contrast to the chronological determinants “elder” suggests. He was erudite in wit and wisdom. And while he did not suffer fools gladly (including me), he was generous and gracious in sharing what he knew. And he knew a lot.
But elder does indeed describe the reverence so many had for Dr. Odom. He was a nationally respected educator, a passionate advocate for African Americans, Black families and communities, and a tenacious fighter for civil rights and justice. His accomplishments were varied and many, including being a skilled actor and singer. But he took special pride in the innovative education initiatives he and his brilliant and equally renowned educator wife, Annie, created and watched achieve success, and especially the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute. Odom founded the CHHI in 2001 in honor of the pioneering work of Charles Hamilton Houston, one of the the 20th century’s most important legal scholars and litigators, with a mission “to prepare Black and other youth for economic independence by focusing on: self-esteem, health, goal-setting, academic achievement, study skills, diploma and degree completion, work skills, business opportunities, service to others and citizenship.” The annual CHHI luncheon honors community leaders who contribute to that mission and is a call to action to address the disparities in our community.
John’s frequent emails to me always elicited a little trepidation. His mastery of syntax only made his criticisms more effective. But he was also generous in his praise. His last email after hearing of my retirement was a message I could return right now. “You will be missed. While we disagreed early and often, you have listened, argued your point and stuck to your guns when (you thought) you were right. You gave voice to your beliefs without flinching and you sought the positives in the fog of negativity and lies that engulf us.” As did you Dr. John Y. Odom, as did you. You were an intellectual and ethical beacon, smart, funny, righteous and brave. You are missed already. He closed the email with words I will treasure, coming from him, forever. “In short, for a white guy, you ain’t half bad.”