By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
One of his sons once said he was “the greatest man that ever lived, besides Jesus.”
A bit biased no doubt, but most who met John Cole wouldn’t argue that he was worthy of such high praise.
The local entrepreneur and co-founder of The Sacramento OBSERVER died November 1 after a life well-lived and well-travelled. Cole was 103 years old.
He was born to Herman and Safronia Cole April 22, 1918 in a shack in the middle of a cotton field in Shelby, Mississippi. Herman Cole was a Christian minister with strong Christian values that he passed on to his family. John was one of 10 children and outlived all of his siblings. Like his own parents, John would also parent 10 children.
Cole married his first wife, Hazel and the family moved to Sacramento in 1951 after living in Kansas City, Kansas for many years.
To provide for his large family, Cole worked as a bartender at the Sutter Club across from the State Capitol. An ambitious man, he would go on to work for himself, owning a variety store in Oak Park. He also owned a repair shop, sold wigs and attempted to start a garbage collection business.
“His legacy in entrepreneurship provides a road map for self-sufficiency, especially in the Black community,” said his son Dwayne Cole. “He will be remembered for compassion, inspiration, and willingness to help others.”
In the late 60s, Cole became a promoter for The Hawkins Singers’ song, “O Happy Day!,” garnering support for it that helped it become the classic it is today. He entered the recording business himself, producing albums and meeting icons like Ray Charles and James Brown during his travels. Music was truly in his spirit and Cole went on to perform with the Soul Crusaders gospel group.
Cole’s varied life experiences are the subject of a book titled, “Moving On Up,” written by Cole’s girlfriend, Georgella Burnette Ellis. Ms. Burnette Ellis was married to the late fellow OBSERVER co-founder Geno Gladden and knew Cole for five decades. She called him a person of “great honesty, compassion and generosity.” An impeccably dressed senior, many commented on Cole being a “true gentleman.”
Cole had an “insatiable desire to succeed,” according to late OBSERVER Publisher, Dr. William H. Lee. Before his passing in 2019, Dr. Lee and Cole enjoyed a friendship that spanned close to 60 years. As aging Black men, the two shared the same physician and Dr. Lee marvelled at Cole’s longevity.
“I tease the doctor (that) whatever he’s doing for John Cole, I want him to do for me,” Dr. Lee joked in 2016.
Cole attributed his advanced age and good health to his love for the Lord. He was devoted to his church, Century Chapel CME, where he was an active member since joining in 1952.
“John was one of a kind,” said longtime OBSERVER Sales Director Joe Stinson.
Prior to joining the newspaper staff, Stinson was one of Cole’s first employees at his variety store. He recalls proudly how Cole carried Black products that most stores didn’t. It was Cole who introduced Stinson to Dr. Lee and the two continued their connection for 54 years.
“He was totally committed to the OBSERVER,” Stinson said.
Dwayne Cole agrees, recalling the time his father brought home the first edition of the newspaper.
“He was so proud,” the younger Cole recounts. “He was so happy, he told me to go sell a bunch of copies.”
Even in advanced age and declining health, Cole maintained his connections, being driven by a son to visit Stinson and other community members. During the pandemic, it was a drive-by visit, where he’d wave and talk to friends from the car, but he did that until being called to glory.
Cole was preceded in death by his father and his mother, who lived to be 96; his first wife Hazel, his second wife Sina, and three children, John Cole, LaDonna McQueen and Franklin Cole. Those who remain to cherish his memory include seven children: Beverly Garman, Betty Moore, Dwanye Cole, Tanya Cole, Myles Cole, Debra Cole, and Darrell Cole.
A memorial service is set for 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday, December 2 at Shiloh Baptist Church. Visitors will be required to wear masks and follow other COVID-19 safety protocols.