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“He was a powerhouse.” Madison community remembers life and legacy of educator and civil rights activist Dr. John Y. Odom


“There is not a single organization in Madison that is focused on Black people that hasn’t either been touched positively by Dr. Odom or influenced by his work, his goodness, his benevolence and his activism,” says Rev. David Hart, an attorney, author, Madison community leader, and pastor of Sherman Avenue United Methodist Church.

The Madison community lost a giant on Oct. 30 when Dr. John Y. Odom, a devoted husband, father, civil rights activist, teacher and mentor to hundreds of Madisonians, passed away at the age of 72.

“This is a deep blow to our community,” Will Green, executive director of Mentoring Positives Inc., tells Madison365. “It hurt my heart to know he was gone. I’m so heartbroken to hear of his passing. We will miss his voice in the community. It was nice to see how loved he was in the community and to remember how powerful he was and how much his words meant to so many people.

“Sometimes when you meet people, you don’t realize their greatness right away. But I really discovered that over time with Dr. Odom,” Green adds.

A private funeral service was held on Saturday, Nov. 7, at St. Matthew CME Church in Milwaukee where people came together to remember Dr. Odom and his life dedicated to civil rights activism, improving student achievement, and mentoring and guiding young community leaders.

Dr. Odom was born Sept. 22, 1948, in Jackson, Miss., to the Rev. Corey Franklin and Rosa Bell (Grant) Odom, according to his obituary. He earned his bachelor of arts degree at Lane College, a historically black college and university (HBCU) and went on to earn his Ph.D. in 1978 in educational leadership at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Dr. Odom was my middle school principal at Cherokee in Madison. I met him in 8th grade. He was the first public school principal to suspend me from school,” laughs Kaleem Caire, founder and CEO of One City Schools. “But he was also the first Black person in a leadership role in education that I had met. Dr. Odom was powerful figure. He was very important to the Black students.

“When I came back to Madison years later as an adult, I got to see a bigger side of him and what he was really about. He was part of the group of what we called ‘old heads’ that always talked to us about the importance of moving the community forward,” Caire adds. “The relationships that he introduced me to and helped me build over the years were incredible.”

Dr. Odom was the president of Odom & Associates and the founder of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute. He authored the following books: “Saving Black America: An Economic Plan for Civil Rights,” “Vote Every Time,” “No N-r Please: 22 Reasons to Stop Saying the N-Word in Public,” and countless newspaper and magazine articles.

Dr. John Odom founder of Charles Hamilton Institute presented this award to Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu
[Photo by Corinda Rainey-Moore)
Hart knew Dr. Odom for at least 30 years.

“Our families have known each other for a long time. He was my confidant and mentor. He was not motivated by money. He wasn’t motivated by fame or clout or any of those things,” Hart tells Madison365. “He simply wanted the best for our culture and our society. He had a particular focus on improving the lives of Black folks and grooming new leaders for leadership in our community.”

Hart says that he remembers many black principals and teachers and counselors who come through the city of Madison whom Dr. Odom mentored. “Many may have had turbulent times at their schools and Dr. Odom would stop by and offer counsel and advice and lend his ear and support,” Hart says. “These are things that you would never hear folks talk about.”

Dr. Odom was a lifetime member of the NAACP and a past president of the local branch of the NAACP. He founded several local organizations and initiatives, including the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute, a teaching center to promote economic independence among Black youth. 

Green was a board member for Dr. Odom’s Charles Hamilton Houston Institute and often his Mentoring Positives kids would volunteer at Charles Hamilton Houston Institute events where they would meet important people in the community and future mentors.

“It was important for the young people to be there at these amazing events hosted by the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute,” Green says. “It was a joy to be around Dr. Odom and to be a part of his life and that organization.”

Back in 2016, Green honored Dr. Odom with Muriel Pipkin Award, an award named after Green’s mother given to a community member or organization that exhibits compassion, empathy, caring, nurturing, integrity and dedication.

“He had a passion for youth – especially our African-American youth in the community. He had a lot of pride around education and pushing our youth to be the best that he can be,” Green says. “CHHI was such an important organization in this community. He had a lot great people working in that organization. I feel blessed to be around that wisdom and to be able to help plan some of the initiatives of CHHI. 

“Dr. Odom was so connected to so many prominent people in the community. I’m really going to miss that man and his important voice in our community,” Green adds.

Dr. Odom spent a lifetime touting the value of an education and was a big inspiration in Green’s higher education. “Something that always eluded me when I left [University of Wisconsin]-Eau Claire was my degree. Dr. Odom once asked me what I had my degree in and I told him I hadn’t finished. I was working and doing Mentoring Positives and I was like, ‘I don’t have time.’ Dr. Odom was like, ‘Well, yes you do! You can go finish that. You can get that done!’

Dr. John Odom [second from left] with Will Green (left) and students from Mentoring Positives Inc.
Green got enrolled in Upper Iowa University, took night classes, and finished his degree in 2015.

“I have to thank Dr. Odom for that. He had faith in me and he inspired me. He wouldn’t let me make excuses any longer,” Green remembers. “I just remember him sitting at his office downtown having that conversation with me and he will always be connected to my degree in psychology.”

Dr. Odom won many prestigious awards during his lifetime including the Martin Luther King Humanitarian of the Year Award, the 2002 James C. Wright Human Rights Award, and the Lane College Alumni Award for Outstanding Achievement. He has been named by Madison Magazine as one of Madison, Wisconsin’s Seven Most Influential Citizens.

Odom, along with other older Black leaders in the community, was a valuable father figure and mentor to people like Green, Hart, Caire and much more

“There’s just something about these old-school dudes in the community that is very important,” Green says. “I always felt like I missed that a little bit in his community with me being from Gary, Indiana … having that family elder that I had in Gary. I’ve been here in Madison for 20 years, but I sometimes feel like that outside guy. But not with Dr. Odom. He imparted such great wisdom.

“He was such an important voice for education and for activism,” Green adds. “He was always pushing us to where we needed to be and to make sure we were having those discussions that needed to be had – even if they were a bit uncomfortable sometimes. He never held back.”

“Dr. Odom always spoke his mind,” Caire adds. “Always.”

Caire remembers the last time he was over at Dr. Odom’s house and the advice that he gave him about One City Schools.

“He told me, ‘Don’t lose your vision, Kaleem. Madison is really good with helping you get something started, but we don’t really have power here. Madison cannibalizes Black people’s visions. Power doesn’t like to give up power, Kaleem,'” Caire says. “Dr. Odom was always talking about the need for us to have a powerful voice that is influential that can get our people results. That was Dr. Odom.”

(L-r) Dr. John Odom, Nichelle Nichols and Dr. Ed Holmes

On top of his day job and his work in the community, Dr. Odom served on a number of board of directors in Madison including the Urban League of Greater Madison, Schools of Hope, Dane County Big Brothers and Sisters, and Edgewood High School.

“He was a powerhouse. If I have any critiques of my generation, we don’t have the strong spine that our elders had – not as an aggregate. A few of us do, but a lot of us don’t. And, secondly, even when they disagreed with each other, [the older generation] worked towards the higher purpose of our community,” Caire says. “What we do is we fight with each other and we ignore each other and we don’t come together and solve problems together. That’s why we’re not moving as far as Dr. Odom’s generation and the one before moved us.

“Our elders are passing and they were some of the strongest people. They are the ones who got us to where we are now. My question is: do my generation of leaders – us, you, me and others – do we have the gravitas and the purpose and the knowledge to move us further? Dr. Odom’s death is just another reminder that our strength and our backbone are leaving us and we have to step up our game.

“I’m really going to miss Dr. Odom,” Caire adds. “The brother was one of the smartest, most well-read, gifted people that I’ve ever met.”


A private funeral service was held on Saturday, Nov. 7, at St. Matthew CME Church in Milwaukee, Wis. In lieu of flowers, the family asks donations to be made to the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute at P.O. Box 620774, Middleton, WI 53562 or via PayPal at [email protected].