KANKAKEE — He was easily the most colorful Kankakee City Council member of the past 30 years.
James “Bubba” Cox, Kankakee alderman from May 1999 through April 2015, died Sunday. He was 84.
An alderman for the city’s north side 1st Ward, Cox was a dedicated member of the 14-person council whose passion for representing residents sometimes — oftentimes — put him at odds with the administration and other council members.
But through it all, there was never a question of the passion Cox had for his longtime home — the city’s north side.
Former 6th Ward Alderman Dennis Baron, who was on the council during Cox’s entire 16-year tenure, said no one would have ever accused Cox of not being passionate about his elected position.
“He was sometimes rude, disruptive and frustrating. He also certainly had a sense for the dramatic,” Baron said Wednesday, recalling the time Cox attended a council meeting wearing a devil’s mask.
“He explained that if everyone thought he was the devil, he should appear like one,” Baron said. “He sort of changed the dynamic of the meeting.”
He often dressed in army fatigues because he felt he was headed into battle. Nothing was too outrageous, nor off limits to Cox.
Baron was also there when Cox was censured by an 11-2 vote in October 2003 for what it felt was repeated inappropriate behavior. A censure is basically a formal slap on the wrist.
But through it all, Cox never wavered or backed down. He never believed his beloved 1st Ward — long the city’s poorest area — received the attention or help it deserved. And if he had to act out to bring attention to the area, then that would be what he would do.
“I think that's true. The 1st Ward was historically overlooked and he was doing what he could to make his point,” Baron said. “He was disruptive. He was always nice to me, and I was always nice to him. We agreed on many things.”
A longtime worker at the General Foods manufacturing plant, which was only several blocks from his residence, Cox was active for many years in Kankakee’s Little League program and he was a leader in having the Ben Franklin School renamed to honor its longtime principal, Millie Proegler. He was involved in local politics long before ever placing his name on a ballot. Cox also served in the U.S. Air Force.
Cox often attended Kankakee City Council meetings prior to his election and was also a frequent participant at Kankakee School Board meetings.
“I guess the best words to describe him would be ‘provocative’ and ‘candid,’” said former longtime Kankakee 7th Ward Alderman Steve Hunter, who was also a nephew to Cox. Hunter’s mother, Lou Anna, was an older sister to Cox.
Hunter said Cox certainly perceived himself an an advocate for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak for themselves. “He had quite a following. But Bubba was Bubba,” he said.
Former Kankakee Mayor Nina Epstein, who served on the council with Cox before being elected to two mayoral terms, said she was first introduced to Cox while working for the Kankakee schools. He repeatedly pushed to have the display in Proegler school to honor his beloved principal. He got the mission accomplished.
“Little did I know that years later I would be dealing with him far more often. He may have been cantankerous, but his heart was always in the right place,” she explained. “Once you got past the bluster everything was fine. I certainly had respect for him. I respected his tenacity. He was a voice for a lot of people.”
Former 1st Ward Alderman Glenn Davidson, who was a seat mate with Cox for six years, knew Cox first as a Little League coach.
“I guess you could say I knew him all my life,” the 61-year-old Davidson said.
Davidson said his mother and Cox worked together many years at General Foods.
“I always thought he was a good guy. He always meant well, it just didn’t always come out that way,” Davidson said.
Like Baron, Davidson said Cox simply wanted the 1st Ward not to be forgotten.
“He wanted to make sure the ward was getting everything it deserved,” Davidson said. “He would always tell me, ‘Stand your ground. Don’t let them push you around.’ I learned to appreciate it.”
Cox did not seek re-election in 2015. Gloria Kennedy won the seat in that election and served four years. She said she believes she shared the same compassion for the community as Cox. She said a regret of her’s is that she was never able to sit down with the former alderman and simply talk to him.
She would have needed to set aside a large block of time. Cox had many things to say and was never shy about sharing his thoughts.