One family name is synonymous with the Black Press in the United States: Sengstacke. Thomas Maurice Sengstacke Picou, the nephew of John H. Sengstacke, played an integral part in helping his uncle build a family of newspapers that included The Chicago Defender, the Michigan Chronicle in Detroit, the New Pittsburgh Courier, and the Tri-State Defender in Memphis.
After Sengstacke's death in 1997, Picou acquired the funding to purchase Sengstacke Enterprises. He gained control in 2003 and created Real Times, Inc., a holding company that owned the newspapers. He served as Real Times' president, CEO and chairman and began rebuilding the brand to reflect the times.
On Feb. 8th, Picou died following a medical procedure at Centennial Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood, Calif. He was 76.
Picou learned the rudiments of journalism from Sengstacke. He took what he'd learned and added a personal touch to news reporting from a modern-day perspective. Those who knew Picou touted his skills in the newsroom, his keen knowledge of the industry, his commitment to the African-American community, his professionalism, and his business savvy.
Robert A. Sengstacke, one of Sengstacke's three sons, added "great" to describe his cousin's skill set. "He was family," said Sengstacke, who'd served as TSD's executive editor and regarded Picou as a brother. "He knew the business because we grew up in it. He was one of the best."
Picou was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 25, 1937, to Inez and Maurice Picou, who moved there from Louisiana. After the death of his mother, his aunt and uncle, Myrtle and John H. Sengstacke, sent for the teenage Picou to come live with them in Chicago.
"Tommy made a difference in my life. My parents were his guardians. My dad loved him," said Sengstacke, who recalls Picou working at a young age for The Chicago Defender, founded by Robert Sengstacke Abbott in 1905 and bequeathed to Abbott's nephew, John Sengstacke.
Robert Sengstacke achieved international acclaim as a photojournalist and documentary photographer, while Picou would eventually rise through the ranks to engineer the sale of Sengstacke Enterprises.
Linda Dickson Sengstacke, who served as editor of the TSD in the 1970s and 80s, refers to Picou as her mentor.
"Tommy taught me everything I know about the newspaper business," she said. "He was a very dedicated newsman who could write a news story and people would really want to read it."
One of the lessons she'd learned from Picou manifested after he'd assigned her to write a story about police brutality in Memphis, she said.
"They were using flashlights to beat people," said Sengstacke, the wife of Picou's cousin, Herman Frederick Sengstacke. "He taught me how to write the story. As a result, the flashlights were taken away from the police officers following an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department."
Ethel Sengstacke also worked with Picou at the TSD, including her father, Whittier Sengstacke Sr., John Sengstacke's brother and former TSD publisher. She learned a lot from Picou, even in her role as a photographer.
"He took all of us under his wings and challenged us," she said, recalling an assignment that her cousin sent her on with Linda Sengstacke to an eerie compound in the South Memphis community that was being bandied about as "Voodoo Village."
"A lot of people were talking about Voodoo Village and people were afraid. So he challenged us to go find out what Voodoo Village was all about," said Sengstacke, assignment editor for News Channel 3 WREG-TV.
"He was a gentle giant, but stern at the same time."
Picou would spend considerable time later on rebranding TSD, including changing the paper's format, adding color to the pages, and a front-page feature each week. He also brought onboard an IT person to troubleshoot computers for the newspapers in the chain.
"Tommy was brilliant, an inspiration to me, and was an innovator," said Audrey McGhee, a former TSD publisher as well. "He was dedicated to the newspaper, particularly to his uncle, whom he loved dearly. Everybody learned so much from him. And he left a lasting impression on all of us."
Judith Picou Garrett said there is no other way to look at what her brother was able to accomplish other than through the context of the African-American press. "He is a part of African-American history."
Memories of childhood experiences are still fresh in her mind, said Garrett, a resident of Los Angeles. She recalls their father buying boxing gloves and teaching them to box. Robert Sengstacke alluded to Picou's boxing prowess, saying, "He kept people off my a--, including my older brother."
Picou's penchant for the newspaper business, and his ability to write stories that the African-American community could relate to, mirrored John Sengstacke's influence, Garrett said.
"He felt the same way John Sengstacke did about the African-American community and wanted to help black people," she said.
Picou transformed the Black Press in an effort to keep it solvent and relevant amid a changing society of disappearing broadsheets and tabloids.
Starting out in the industry in his youth, Picou made time to study at East Los Angeles City College, Los Angeles City College and Roosevelt University in Chicago. He was at Roosevelt University when he began working for his uncle. During this time, he married Cynthia Cole, who gave birth to a daughter, Tracey Picou, a resident of Little Rock.
In 1984, Picou moved to South Florida, where he was involved in several entrepreneurial endeavors, including the purchase of the Tousley-Bixley construction firm in Indianapolis, best known for its construction of the Indianapolis 500 track. He served as chairman and CEO and 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, Inc., the Times Mirror Group and three of the Sengstacke-owned newspapers. In 2005, the American Diabetes Association and the Father's Council honored him as a "Father of the Year."
Picou served on the trustee boards of Chicago State College and Florida International University; served as an alternate on President Lyndon Johnson's initial National Alliance of Businessmen; and on numerous committees to which the late Mayor Richard J. Daley appointed him, as well as several state committees.
He served as honorary chair for the American 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.
His long-time companion, Loretta Walker, as well as other beloved relatives and friends around the country survive Picou.