J. Whyatt Mondesire, 65, led Philadelphia NAACP for 17 years

NPXMOND06C6520
J. Whyatt Mondesire, former president of the Philadelphia Chapter of the NAACP, on Aug.10, 2009. (David Maialetti / Staff Photographer)

JEROME WHYATT Mondesire bestrode the world of Philadelphia urban affairs with his pointy boots and cowboy hat, a saucy challenge in every step.

Critics said that when Jerry, as he was known, ran the Philly branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for more than 17 years, he was the news. The work of the organization faded a bit under the force of his personality.

A charismatic civil rights activist, editor and publisher, Jerry Mondesire, who served as president of the local NAACP from 1996 to 2014, died last night at the age of 65.

A family source said Mondesire was having dialysis at Chestnut Hill Hospital Friday when he suffered a brain aneurysm. He was transferred to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and placed on a ventilator.

"He was always fighting for the underdog, not just for the NAACP but for all causes," said U.S. Rep. Robert Brady. "He was a fighter for people who couldn't fight for themselves."

Brady, who had known Mondesire for 30 years, said he talked to him last week. "I asked him how he was doing, and he said he was waiting for a kidney."

Yesterday, Minister Rodney Muhammad, elected chapter president last December, said, "We will always remember the sterling leadership of J. Whyatt Mondesire."

"He led us in the city, the state and as a member of the NAACP national board, and we want to do everything we can to build on the good that Jerry Mondesire has done."

State Sen. Vincent Hughes was a longtime friend who recalled Jerry as a "take-no-prisoners kind of guy." "He was very committed to a progressive set of issues. He was very focused on the African-American issues. He was very smart and in your face, and that's how he operated. He was passionate about his commitment and the issues that he worked on.

"He was an important voice. He could walk in most rooms, whether affluent or down-on-their luck. He would have respect when he walked in that room. And people paid attention to what Jerry had to say."

Former Inquirer political columnist Dick Polman, now a journalism teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, said, "Jerry was a great help to me, on background when I covered city politics in 1989. I was always grateful for that.

"He was also the first person I ever saw wielding a mobile phone. He was striding around on 15th Street, talking on a contraption that had no wires and was as thick as a brick and twice as long."

"Depending on where you stood, he was a reliably dogged ally or a worthy adversary," City Council President Darrell Clarke said. Whether you agreed with him or not, Jerry's passion for equal representation and opportunity for all was undeniable."

George Burrell, former city councilman and an aide to the late U.S. Rep. William Gray III, for whom Mondesire worked, said, "We've grown up as family for the last 40 years."

Mondesire "had a significant impact on a number of people's lives as well as for social and political change in Philadelphia," Burrell said.

Last July, Mondesire became engaged to Catherine Hicks, the public relations and event coordinator for Mondesire's weekly newspaper, the Philadelphia Sun.

She threw a surprise party for him when the NAACP annual conference was held here.

"His commitment to justice and equality for all people, not just people of color, was unmatched," she wrote in an email invitation. "Although he is no longer serving as president of the PA State Conference and the Philadelphia chapter, we are celebrating him and all that he has done over the last 17 years."

It was said that during the party, Mondesire bent down on one knee and proposed to Hicks.

"Jerry had a lion's heart and a voice really big enough to articulate the pain and the plight of African-Americans, and his head was full of ways to make things better," said Barbara Grant, a partner in Cardenas Grant Communications. "His kind of legendary anger was directed at injustice. He tried to shake up people to galvanize them to make things better."

"Jerry was a fearless defender of truth and a tireless advocate for justice," said Sheriff Jewell Williams. "His death will leave a void across the nation, which is what happens when an irreplaceable voice is silenced."

Acel Moore, associate editor emeritus of the Inquirer, worked with Mondesire, who had been a reporter and editor for the paper.

"He was a very bright and talented journalist and was also someone who demonstrated leadership and the ability to project himself into what he was doing, Moore said. "To be honest, he made a contribution in many ways, but at the same time he had a personality that conflicted with some people."

Sonny Driver, editor and publisher of Scoop magazine, recalled Jerry as "a good guy."

"He wore his boots and he wore his hats. He was a westerner in Philadelphia who was from New York. He had a personality that a lot of people didn't understand. Had he stayed around a little longer, I think there are a lot of things he would have done for us socially and politically."

Mondesire may have expressed his philosophy about what the civil-rights movement needed back when he was in high school in New York City.

As a member of the NAACP High School Youth Council, he said the national NAACP board was made up of a bunch of folks "who just weren't angry enough."

Mondesire took that anger at injustice into his future activism in his adopted city of Philadelphia. He once said that when he went to his first NAACP meeting in Philly all he found was "chaos."

He was determined, as he said at the time, to bring the organization into the 21st century.

Mondesire was suspended as president of the local NAACP chapter along with three board members by the national organization for allegations of misuse of chapter funds.

He became involved in the case against state Attorney General Kathleen Kane when prosecutors charging Kane with conspiracy, perjury and obstruction of justice charged that she secretly released information to the Daily News about a 2009 investigation of Mondesire's finances. Kane questioned why charges weren't brought against Mondesire and suggested the case had been bungled.

Mondesire was raised in Harlem where his mother was a member of the Abysinnian Baptist Church, led by U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. His father was a follower of black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey.

Mondesire originally planned to go to law school, but when his father died, he abandoned the idea. He came to Philadelphia and became an assistant city editor at the Inquirer.

He left the paper to become an assistant to Bill Gray. When Gray unexpectedly resigned from Congress in 1991 to become chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund, Mondesire was left without an income. The next year, he started the Philadelphia Sun.

He used the newspaper as a way to express his views on current events, but he stirred controversy in 2005 with an editorial attacking Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. He wrote that McNabb was a "mediocre talent," and criticized him for refusing to run with the football.

He is survived by three sons, Wallace, Zachary and Joseph; a daughter, Jennifer; a brother, Irving; and fiance Cathy Hicks.

Services were being arranged.