Interviews

Community Matters

A conversation with Rudy and Joyce Nimocks

William Camargo

RUDY: Our story’s a story that spans forty years.

JOYCE: Well actually forty-five years. Even longer than that. Actually about fifty-three or fifty-four years when we met at the first self-service store at 47th and Halsted, where I was working. And Rudy worked right next door at the…uh…
RUDY: Meat market. Grocery store. And I was also a detective in the Chicago Police Department in the homicide section. I worked at the store part-time until I was promoted to sergeant, and then I stopped working part-time. But anyway, we met, and I started talking to her, and then we dated, and then it was off and running after that We got married in 1970, I think it was.
JOYCE: St. Patrick’s Day.
RUDY: St. Patrick’s Day in 1970, and that was what? Forty…
JOYCE: Forty-five years ago.
RUDY: Forty-five years ago. And she didn’t have the activist spirit like she has now. That came maybe, I don’t know, fifteen years ago. Something like that?
JOYCE: Yeah, yeah, about fifteen years ago.
RUDY: I think she was infected by my enthusiasm for working in the community and working with kids and all of that. So once the bug bit her, then we were off and running, and we’ve been doing it ever since.

As we sit in green armchairs in a cozy room adjacent to Mr. Nimocks’s office at the Harris School of Public Policy, Rudy and Joyce Nimocks immediately launch into a conversation regarding community engagement and youth opportunities. For decades, the Nimockses have been tirelessly working to involve entire neighborhoods in conversations like the one we’re having—conversations related to education, public safety, and health. In 1956, Rudy Nimocks began working for the Chicago Police Department as a police officer in Washington Park. Twenty-three years ago, he became chief of the University of Chicago Police Department, and he currently serves as the Director of Neighborhood Partnerships for the UofC. Through this position, he works to form connections between the UofC and neighboring communities. Some of his initiatives include the Chicago Youth Leadership Academy, the Public Safety Alliance, and Woodlawn Children’s Promise Zone. Joyce Nimocks is also heavily involved in many local organizations; she has worked as a peer educator on asthma in Woodlawn, she serves as the chair of the early childhood committee for the Woodlawn Children’s Promise Zone, and she is an active volunteer at the University of Chicago Medical Center and her church. The 6100 Block of Greenwood Avenue was renamed “Honorary Rudy & Joyce Nimocks Way” in their honor.

JOYCE: Rudy’s mother told me that when he was four years old, he told his mother he wanted to become a policeman.
RUDY: Yeah, and I never wanted to do anything else. I had all kinds of offers: do this, do that, go here, go there, but I never wanted to leave Chicago. We’ve lived in the same building since 1952, even before Joyce and I got married, and my mother was there all along.
I’ve always been socially oriented. I like to talk to people. In order to communicate with people successfully, you have to understand where they’re coming from. I tell young police officers all the time, “You can’t go into a neighborhood when you don’t know anything about that neighborhood.” While you are there, one of the most important things you can do to gain your credibility is for people to get to know you, to get to trust you, so they don’t feel reluctant to walk up to you and have a conversation with you about anything—a baseball game, a hot dog, or whatever. They will consider you as a part of their community if you go to the community meetings, if you hear their problems, if you accept their problems as your problems and you let them know that. The important thing is that the police officers have to understand the history of the people that they’re serving.
I was raised in these environments. I was a gangbanger myself when I was younger. I formed my own gang called the Thirteen Cats, and the only thing that saved me from disaster was that I went into the military and stayed there for almost two years. When I was a homicide detective, my partner’s name was John. When we were in high school, he taught Sunday school. I was a gangbanger. He was a Sunday school teacher. We ended up being partners in the Chicago Police Department, which was quite a contradiction.

Once we ran across this kid one night, at eleven o’clock at night, and he must have been about eight or ten years old. We took him home and on the way home, John saw that the bottoms of this kid’s shoes were torn off. He had raggedy old shoes. We went by there the next day, went down to a neighborhood store, and bought this kid a pair of shoes. After that, we could go to his parents six months from then, and they would never forget you, because police officers normally don’t do that.

Also, sometimes when I’d arrest some young man for a homicide, and I knew that the family lived in Ida B. Wells or Stateway or one of the public housing units and had a bunch of kids, I would arrange for somebody to take care of their kids. I’d take my personal car and I’d transport that parent to court, explain the whole court process to them, and then take them back home. And I’m the same one who put their child in jail. I could always go back to those same families. They trusted me, they knew me, they told other people about me, and it worked like a charm. We went into houses where they didn’t have anything, any refrigerator or nothing. John and I would take money out of our pockets to give them five or ten dollars. Back then that was a lot of money, back in the sixties. I even bought them groceries a couple of times and brought them back to the families in the squad car. We did all that kind of stuff.

Now it’s not reasonable to think that police now could do it, but that’s the kind of thing that you have to have in you. That’s a personality attribute that I would expect all police officers to have. It’s all about building your credibility with the people that you serve; that’s what it’s all about. O.W. Wilson took over as superintendent of the police in about 1962, and he coined a phrase that I often use now: “The police department should be part of the community, rather than apart from it.”

I am at a point in time now where I think in retrospect about all of the young people I’ve sent to the penitentiary—a lot of people. Most of them were young people. I mean, very young people, sometimes as young as thirteen years old. So when I think about all of that, it just makes me more determined to see if I can go out and do something—make a movement or change, change that life pathway so that child won’t go the negative way, but will go the positive way.

To make it simple, we are all products of our environment, so if you grow up in an environment where people talk about who went to jail, who got out of jail, who’s going to jail, then you see the same thing repeated over and over again: a fragmented home, mother usually there, no man in the house, kids out of school, gangs, drugs, penitentiaries, getting killed young and all of that. The parents need to be educated, because a lot of the deficiencies in the household begin with the parents who are uneducated or may have dropped out of school, or suffered the same kind of negative environment as the child the parent is trying to raise. Certain standards of education should be available to everyone in this country, no matter whether they’re black, white, whatever their ethnicity, whatever their background, whether they’re immigrants, or whatever. We should all have quality education, and that’s where the future of this country really lies—is with education.

JOYCE: I’ve seen some great models of early education. There are lots of opportunities that are good and that can really help our kids do well early on, but the nation has to make a very concerted effort to do this a thousand times more, even more than it’s happening now—a really, really committed effort to focusing on early education and then to provide those supports. It’s not enough to provide classroom work, but the child has to be healthy. You have to have opportunities for children to have mental assistance as well as physical care.

Woodlawn Children’s Promise Community was formed as an outgrowth of the New Communities program where community members came together, about three hundred or so of us, and we talked about our aspirations and our goals for what we wanted our community to look like. Some of our top priorities were education, housing, public safety, and youth. Education came to the top of the heap. Bishop Arthur M. Brazier was the first chair of the Woodlawn Promise Community, and he was excited about what was happening at Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City. We went on a three-day trip to Harlem, and learned so much and saw so much about the benefits of early education. We may not be able to do all of the things that they’re doing, here, because we would have to do some of those activities in the framework of our neighborhood public school system. However, we want to achieve the core of what they were achieving: the whole pipeline of services which is unique about starting with baby college and going right through, not only to college or career, but through college. We saw that as a goal for us to come back and achieve here in the Woodlawn community.

William Camargo

William Camargo

Rudy and I really enjoy what we do, and I think the benefit of us sharing a like attitude about approaching this work makes it a whole lot easier, because we both have that same attitude. We just want to see the best come out of young people. We try to help people wherever we can. We’ve been blessed along the way so that we can help others. I think the work that Rudy did kind of rubbed off on me in that sense. Like I said, about fifteen years ago I started to get involved little by little with different groups and activities. I was doing volunteer work, and then it has grown and grown to this point to my work with the Woodlawn Promise Community and then being part of the Safety Alliance as well. Wherever I think I can serve, I do.
Woodlawn is an activist community, and has been, for many, many, many, many years. I feel more hopeful every time I see another stakeholder moving in. We have had some of the very first new housing built in over forty years in Woodlawn. We’re looking at more of a mixed income community without gentrification—without pushing people out—so there’s a good balance. We have two coffee shops now that we have never had in over forty years. We’ve got Robust and we’ve got the Greenline coffee shop. We have relatively new anchors that are emerging along with those that have already been there. I feel very hopeful about the community.

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