Community group raised funds for Willie Pickens memorial mural

A mock-up of a memorial mural for Willie Pickens that is proposed to be painted on William H. Ray Elementary School, just across from the Pickens’ home.  All the Pickens’ children attended Ray as did the muralist, Sam (Desi Mundo) Mulberry – Courtesy of the Pickens’ family and Jay Mulberry 

Contributing Writer

A group of friends and fans got together to honor jazz musician, Hyde Park resident and Ray Elementary School supporter Willie Pickens by raising funds to commemorate him with a mural at the school, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave.

Pickens died Dec. 12, on his way to a sound check prior to a concert at Lincoln Center in New York City.

The planners, led by Kiron Pickens, Sam (Desi Mundo) Mulberry and Jay Mulberry, raised over $6,000 in donations for the project.

Sam Mulberry, founder of the Community Rejuvenation Project, a policy organization that cultivates communities through public art and education, came up with the idea and shared his vision with the Pickens’ youngest daughter, Kiron Pickens, after a memorial service. Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) supported the idea and suggested they create the mural at Ray.

“Willie and Irma were the sweetest, most gentle, and loving people in Hyde Park,” said Jay Mulberry. “The mural will be set up just across from Willie’s home at the entrance of the school’s auditorium, which I think is wonderful.”

The Pickens’ home on Kimbark Avenue is still owned by the family.

Jay Mulberry and Kiron Pickens described Willie and Irma Pickens as “special and loving people that always gave back to their community.”

All three Pickens children attended Ray, so Irma and Willie Pickens always participated in the school’s events and activities. They held luncheons for the school’s faculty and staff at the end of each school year’s first semester. Irma Pickens was part of Ray’s Parent Teacher Association. Their daughter Bethany Pickens, an important Jazz musician in her own right, has served as a teacher there for 15 years.

The Pickens’ work in Hyde Park was not limited to Ray School. They were active at Hyde Park Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn Ave., where Willie organized the Christmas holiday concert from the early 1990s until recently, giving the proceeds to the Centers for New Horizons, a nonprofit organization with locations throughout Bronzeville and Riverdale that helps children, youth and families become self-reliant. Irma Pickens would assist with the church’s Sunday school activities.

The organizers expressed gratitude to the Hyde Park community for their support and are debating a number of other ways to commemorate the Pickens in the neighborhood.

Staff writer Aaron Gettinger contributed to this report.