Memorial services were being planned this week for Thomas Maurice Sengstacke Picou, a longtime businessman and black media executive who died here last week of a heart attack following a medical procedure. He was 76.
Picou was former president and chairman of Real Times, Inc., corporate owners of the Chicago Defender, the iconic newspaper whose attacks on racism and promotion of opportunities for blacks almost single-handedly fueled the Great Migration of southern blacks to northern cities from 1910 through the 1930s.
Picou also was the nephew of longtime Defender publisher John H. Sengstacke, who assumed the helm of the historic newspaper at age 28 and made his mark by establishing the Negro Newspaper Publisher’s Association – a federation of black newspapers - and converting the Defender from a weekly newspaper to a daily.
Sengstacke and his wife, Myrtle, raised Picou as their own son after Picou’s mother died in the 1950s. From that point on, Picou was a vital part of the Sengstacke and Chicago Defender families, longtime associates said.
During his long tenure at the Defender, Picou evolved into a hard-working, community-minded executive who had his foot planted firmly in the past but his eye focused sharply on the future, said longtime friend and associate David M. Milliner.
“Tom was that rare breed of journalist who honored the historic ‘service mission’ of the black press while still understanding its need to modernize and develop stronger business practices,” said Milliner, a Real Times board member. “He was, in that sense, a rare blend of activism and capitalism.”
Milliner said, however, that Picou was more interested in serving the black community than in making lots of money.
“He always focused more on mission and service than on profit and personal gain,” said Milliner, himself a former publisher of the Chicago Defender. “In my book, that makes him one of the most important black media executives of the last half of the 20th century.”
Picou was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 25, 1937, to Inez and Maurice Picou, who had moved to California from Louisiana. After moving to Chicago as a teenager to live with the Sengstackes, he began working for the Defender, where he assumed various jobs before taking on management responsibilities as an adult.
In 1984, Picou moved to south Florida where he was involved in several entrepreneurial ventures, including the purchase of the Tousley-Bixley construction firm in Indianapolis, best known for its construction of the Indianapolis 500 track. As chairman and CEO, Picou waged a drive to involve more minority sub-contractors in the state's lucrative construction industry.
From 1990 to 1999, Picou secured consulting contracts with publishing giant Gannett, the Times Mirror Group, and three other Sengstacke-owned newspapers.
After his uncle died in 1997, Picou returned to Chicago and began devising a plan to buy Sengstacke Enterprises. In 2003, he gained control of Sengstacke Enterprises and created Real Times Inc., the holding company that owns The Chicago Defender, The Michigan Chronicle in Detroit, The New Pittsburgh Courier, and the Tri-State Defender in Memphis.
He remained a major stockholder in the company until his death.
In 2005, Mr. Picou was honored by the American Diabetes Association and the Father’s Council as a Father of the Year. “Being a father is the most important aspect of my life, which makes this an honor I am extremely proud to receive,” he said at the time.
Picou served on the trustee boards at Chicago State College and Florida International University; served as an alternate on President Lyndon Johnson's initial National Alliance of Businessmen; and on numerous local and state quasi-government committees.
He also served as an honorary chair for the Red Cross, the NAACP's annual fundraising dinner and the Chicago Urban League's annual businessmen's luncheon. He was a member of the American Newspaper Publishers Association, The American Society of Newspaper Editors and The National Newspaper Publishers Association (formerly the Negro Newspaper Publishers Association.
Over the years, he enjoyed collecting gold coins and art, and was an avid sports enthusiast, with college basketball being his favorite spectator sport.
Picou is survived by his daughter, Tracey Picou of Little Rock, Ark.; his sister, Judith Picou Garrett of Los Angeles; his longtime companion, Loretta Walker; and by other beloved relatives, including his first cousin, Robert Sengstacke.
Memorial services are pending.
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