ELYRIA — The city long ago lost Isaac Chapman, Thomas Shores, John Howard and Leo Bullocks.
Now, the list of gone but not forgotten black leaders who worked to ensure the voice of minorities was heard in the city includes former Elyria school board member and city councilman Herman Larkins.
Larkins, 81, died Sunday at University Hospitals Elyria Medical Center following a brief illness.
His death was a shock to his family despite being hospitalized since February. Daughter Liz Fields said until recently her father would talk only of getting better and continuing with his long-held passion of doing whatever he could to make the city he called home for more than 60 years a better place.
“He was in love with Elyria,” she said. “He couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital so he could tell people how to get the city right.”
Larkins, who came to Elyria from the small town of Belvidere, Tenn., where his family farmed and instilled in him the characteristics he was best known for — respect, civic responsibility and service to others — served on Elyria City Council for 12 years. He was an at-large councilman from 1995 through 2005 and represented the 5th Ward from 2005 to 2007.
In addition to his time on Council, Larkins spent eight years on the Lorain County Transit Board before it disbanded and four years as an Elyria school board member. His legacy of service also included longtime membership in the Elyria chapter of the NAACP and being a Lorain County Urban League African-American male mentor at Franklin Elementary and Elyria High schools.
“He was a wonderful public servant who will be greatly missed,” said Elyria Mayor Holly Brinda.
Larkins also was a veteran of the Air Force. He worked from 1961 to 1988 as an electronics technician for the Federal Aviation Administration in Oberlin.
There are few people in Elyria who do not have a story or two to tell about Larkins. Those stories may not always be pleasant, said his daughter, Lisa Godbolt.
“He was a person that either you really liked or you really disliked him,” she said. “He had a strong personality and never apologized for it, but if you needed help and came to my father, he was there for you. I am sure you can find so many residents and parents of students who can say ‘Mr. Larkins helped me’ when he was on the school board.”
Councilman Marcus Madison, who now represents the 5th Ward, said he was 17 years old and fresh off a trip to Washington, D.C., when he sought Larkins, eager to glean advice on his own political aspirations.
“I knocked on his door and when he answered, I told him I wanted to know how I could get involved and represent this community,” he said. “The first thing he said was he was already doing that job, but that he would show me the way for the time when he wasn’t.”
Over the next few years, Larkins mentored Madison, introducing him to fellow Democrats in the city and other elected leaders as well as giving him a personalized course in city government.
“He was truly my inspiration to run for Council at the age of 21,” Madison said. “I knew I could get involved in the political process because Larkins mentored me, told me to be bold and not be afraid to speak up for what I believed in.”
Fields said her father was eager to see change on the south side and knew he would need the help of the younger generation to do it. He lived on Middle Avenue for decades, while the neighborhood changed around him rapidly.
In 2009, Larkins was shaken when three young gunmen robbed him in his own driveway.
“He knew Elyria was not the same anymore, but he couldn’t leave the city either,” said his wife of 31 years, June Larkins. “This was his home and he was never going to leave it behind.”
Larkins was outspoken, too. He often ruffled feathers. A 2005 debate over whether voters should have a mandatory say in any reduction in the income tax credit was one of those moments.
Then serving as an at-large councilman, Larkins was quoted at a debate as saying residents who lived in the city and worked elsewhere were freeloaders. The comment ignited anger in some residents, and others called for him to issue a public apology.
But Larkins was not one to go back on his opinion.
“He spoke his mind,” said Forrest Bullocks, a former councilman and current clerk of City Council. “People didn’t always like what Herman had to say, but he was a good person who always put Elyria first.”
Bullocks said Larkins also was an expert on city matters. If anyone needed background information on a matter of any historic significance in Elyria from roughly 1940 to the present, Larkins — still sharp in his old age — likely had the answer.
“Not too long ago, I can remember getting a phone call from a civil rights attorney who had an old Elyria map with a street called Coon Road on it on the south side,” Bullocks said. “Because it was on the map near Wilkes Villa, people wondered why the street was named that. I knew if anyone knew, Herman Larkins did. I called him and he told me the story of how the street was named for the Coon family that owned a farm in that area.”
Passing the torch of civil service to his children never worked out for Larkins, who was the father of seven children and four step-children. But he found others who came after him to encourage.
“I learned a lot from Mr. Larkins,” Madison said. “He taught me that at the end of the day, it’s about people and not politics. It’s about serving our community, creating opportunity, working hard to understand the issues, and shining a light on the positive things taking place in our community.”
Donna Mitchell, D-6th Ward, said during her first year on Council, she turned to Larkins for advice.
“I will never forget the day he told me I was doing a good job,” she said. “It was the moment that validated everything I was doing as a council person because this was a person who knew so much about how the city ran.”
Funeral arrangements for Larkins are pending through Carter Funeral Home.