Memories of Otis J. Brock, III brought about quiet tears, smiles and laughter as nearly 1,000 people, including local dignitaries, public officials and everyday folks, paid tribute to a beloved son of the city and friend of its children who suddenly passed away on April 24.
There were no seats left in the ballroom at his memorial service Saturday morning at his alma mater Savannah State University. Many people stretched along the walls and spilled into the hallway just to hear the accolades, the musical selections and the eulogy.
The word pillar comes to mind when describing Brock, who humbly accepted his role as a star balancing his career as a public servant with his family and community.
Brock’s life should be a wakeup call said, The Rev. Hosea Waters of Magnolia Baptist Church in Montezuma, who delivered the eulogy and read from the Book of Job, which reminded those in attendance about “The Brevity of Life.’’
The 41-year-old husband of Nailah, father of young daughters Zuri, 4, and Zoe, 2, and a baby on the way; the son of Annette Kennedy Brock and Otis J. Brock Jr., and brother of Donna L. Brock, graduated from Johnson High School.
He had dreams like most young men of becoming a basketball player. Life had another playbook for young Brock, which required him to aptly juggle delicate assignments as chief operating officer for the Savannah-Chatham County public schools.
Many in the community knew him as the highest ranking African-American official in the school district calmly sorting out the district’s finances, challenging transportation plans and school building projects at the microphone during school board meetings. They trusted him with multi-million dollar deals and he did so with humility even in the backdrop of angry parents.
Superintendent Dr. Thomas B. Lockamy Jr., who said he loved Brock like a son, spoke of his ability to bridge communities.
“Otis could walk into a room to make a presentation in front of angry people and at the end they’d all be leaving the meeting hugging each other.”
He was a man of character whose demeanor was consistently described the same way. “He’s always been a nice guy,’’ said Dionne Hoskins, the board representative for District 2. “The damage to the heart of this community was caused because he was an extremely kind person who was succeeding; and he wasn’t doing it on the backs and necks of anyone.”
“His parents taught him humility and kindness,’’ added MarRonde Lumpkin- Lotson, one of his oldest friends who grew up with Brock on Whatley Avenue in Thunderbolt.
City Alderman Van Johnson said he had been discouraged from seeking office because he was young and not from Savannah. He went to Brock for advice. “I knew Otis was my friend when he said I think you should do it and I’ll help you. We beat a three-term incumbent and that was a big deal.’’
Their offices were about a block apart, making it easy for them to bounce off ideas and strategies with one another about business and civic affairs. They also shared a personal friendship that earned Johnson the title of “Uncle Van’’ because he introduced Brock to his wife at a Savannah State University homecoming game.
The matchmaking stuck, said Lumpkin-Lotson, who remembers the day Brock, who was a groomsman in her wedding, brought Nailah to meet her. “Oh, you must be pretty special,’’ she recalled. The couple “gushed with emotions,’’ she said and the rest is history.
For the past few years, the families continued a tradition of barbecuing under a tent at football games, sharing children’s birthday parties and trick or treating together.
“He was my first friend and a brother from another mother,’’ Lumpkin-Lotson said. As classmates in Leadership Savannah, she said their bond grew stronger. The council chambers were nearly empty on the day, Lumpkin-Lotson was receiving acknowledgments from the city council that she had been selected as one of the Top 40 under 40 award recipients by the chamber of commerce.
“I turned around, (Brock) was in one of the seats in the back row. He gave me a peace sign and got up to leave. He was one of those people who authentically cared,” Lumpkin-Lotson said. Brock wasn’t an hourly employee so no one knows for sure how many hours he clocked in each week. But everyone knew that he was one of Lockamy’s top lieutenants, a loyal right hand official who didn’t say no to assignments even if it required him to work weekends. During a ribbon cutting last year at Oatland Island, Lockamy recalled a simple story about Brock that showed his ability to balance work and family, “Brock had his hands full with one of his daughters. She was not interested in what was being said at the podium, she was more interested in getting her hands on his full cup of coffee,’’ Lockamy said. “Needless to say his efforts to gently entertain her resulted in a full cup of coffee being spilled on his foot – completely filling his shoe. While this might cause a stressful situation for some… not Otis, he simply picked up his daughter delivered a big kiss and gave us that Otis smile…. happy, understanding, able to shoulder anything – even a shoe full of coffee,’’ the superintendent said. “His fingerprints are all over this community,’’ said Johnson. “People can’t phantom the depths of his influence,’’ he said adding that he didn’t hesitate to pick up the telephone when a parent in his district had a problem in the school system. “He didn’t pass the question on to someone else. He would find out what happened to that one child and call back.”
Perhaps if the community reflects upon Brock’s accomplishments they’ll see his legacy at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, the Savannah State University National Alumni Association, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., The Rotary Club of Savannah, 100 Black Men of Savannah, Leadership Savannah, Big Brother/Big Sister Inc., United Way of the Coastal Empire and the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce.
Tina A. Brown of TAB Brown Publishing is an independent journalist and marketing consultant based in Savannah. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.