The last words exchanged between Devoyd “Dee” Jennings and Sultan Cole were words of love, encouragement and pride. It was their final conversation before Jennings died Saturday, leaving Cole without his mentor and friend.
On July 23, Cole and Jennings attended a Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce meeting. Cole is the chairman of the chamber’s board while Jennings, 73, served as president and CEO for 31 years.
“I was walking him downstairs,” Cole said. “He had to get to his wife from her doctor’s appointment. As we walked downstairs, we were reflecting on the last years. … He looked back and said, ‘You know what? Under your leadership and the team efforts …we’re in the best position in the chamber than we’ve been in a long time, and I feel good about our future and where we’re going.”
After that, Cole said, they told each other “love you,” and to pass on their love to their wives.
Cole described Jennings as “a silent giant of a man” in the community.
Bob Ray Sanders, director of communication for the chamber, said he and Jennings met in high school at I.M. Terrell, then a segregated school. Jennings was part of the state championship basketball team in 1965. Since those days in school, Sanders and Jennings have maintained a friendship.
Visitation: 6-8 p.m. Friday at Emerald Hills Funeral Home, 500 Kennedale Sublett Road, Kennedale 76060
Funeral: 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, 5819 W. Pleasant Ridge Road, Arlington 76016
Burial: Emerald Hills Memorial Park
“He’s always been that kind of person who was looking out for the community, long before we got associated with the chamber,” Sanders said. “We both go back to the day where there was segregation, and when there were strong Black business districts in downtown and in various parts of the community. On the east side, west side, on the north side. So, he said his interest is in making sure that black businesses have a chance to survive after integration.”
While he wanted to develop those businesses and make sure they thrive, Sanders said, another passion Jennings had was making sure young people got the chance to become leaders.
Cole’s mother and Jennings grew up together in Butler Place, one of Fort Worth’s segregated public housing complexes, so he knew Jennings all his life. Jennings helped him grow into a leader, Cole said.
Cole founded the nonprofit Read to Win, a tutoring program for Fort Worth students, and Jennings played a role in helping him start his business and advocate for him with the chamber.
“He would give me insight and wisdom and show me how to really foster partnerships,” Cole said. “I formed some wonderful relationships with the philanthropic community, and through the chamber I’ve had the opportunity to get greater exposure.”
Jennings taught leadership by example, Cole said.
“I was able to observe how he navigated, I would say, the hard conversations in terms of economic development,” Cole said. “He was the conscience that many relied on. It reminds me of when I was a young engineer, someone told me, ‘Know the game, but you don’t have to play the game.’ And that was Dee: He knew it, but he didn’t play it. He stood on his values.”
Deboyd “Dee” Jennings’s career highlights
1973-2000: TXU/ONCOR lobbyist/community affairs specialist.
1995-2015: Texas Association of Business board member.
1989-2006: Texas Wesleyan University board member.
1993-2003: North Texas Commission board member.
1986-1992: Chairman for the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber.
1992-2000: Chairman of the Texas Association of African American Chambers.
1990-2021: President and CEO of the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber.
Cole learned how to put others before himself, he said.
“I was able to watch how he lived his life, not only professionally, but personally to the very last day,” he said. “He was a servant leader. He was serving his wife breakfast Saturday morning. That was his last act of service and that speaks volumes of his character.”
Sanders said that mentorship extended to other young people in the community. The Thursday before his death, Jennings met with a high school student who had a business idea. Giving young people opportunities was part of his mission, Sanders said, and he lived it even in his last days.
Andre McEwing, supplier diversity manager for Tarrant County College District, also grew up with Jennings.
McEwing said Jennings not only worked with Black business owners; he tried to help white business owners value what Black businesses brought to the economy. He believed economic development came from uplifting all businesses.
Jennings’ leadership will be remembered, as the chamber works to fill his big shoes, Sanders said. The chamber decided to spend the week after his death honoring his legacy and making sure his family is taken care of. After that, it will come up with a succession plan.
“They’ll be able to get through it, but they will not be Dee,” Sanders said. “There will be no other Dee.”
Glenn Lewis, another chamber board member, was inspired by Jennings’ desire to lead.
Lewis is a partner with Linebarger Goggan Blair Law firm, a former state representative, and chairman of the board of Texas Wesleyan University. Jennings was a constant adviser and friend throughout his career.
He also was a trailblazer, Lewis said.
“If I’m not mistaken, he was the first African American to serve on the Board of Trustees at our alma mater, Texas Wesleyan University,” Lewis said. “And I later got elected to that board, and as of June 1, I became the first African American to be elected chairman of that board in its 131-year history of the university. And so, you see without Devoyd Jennings, there wouldn’t have been me. … He paved the way.”
Lewis shared a community saying: “if a leader goes down on page three, then we go to the funeral, and we mourn briefly, and then we go back and turn to page four.”
Page four includes projects Jennings has pursued, including a $10 million housing development at Texas Wesleyan University, Lewis said.
McEwing said there are plenty of people who will keep Jennings’ spirit alive, continue his work and remember his perseverance.
“Regardless of the obstacles of being an African-American man growing up in Butler housing, living in segregated times, there is perseverance,” he said. “You have to just persevere and push on and believe that there is a group of folks — that may not look like you — to understand and support you, to create an economic and entrepreneurial mission to support everybody. We’ll miss his spirit, kindness, care, respect and his love for his community and for his people.”