It’s been over a week, and I’m still struggling to wrap my head around the fact that I’ll no longer hear E. Steven Collins, whose resonant voice flowed like warmed maple syrup and whose insights outpaced Wikipedia. Even writing this remembrance is surreal.
E. was a Philly staple, having spent much of his professional life delivering news and opinions for radio audiences hungry to make sense of the controversies that engulfed the world. At every outlet and at every turn, from WRTI to WHAT to WDAS to Radio One, he used his perch to crusade for truth, justice and the idealized—if not always realized—American Way. Exercising the right to vote. Curbing institutional racism. Raising families. Building communities. Fortifying schools. Creating meaningful jobs. Cultivating small and minority-owned businesses. Cheering Philly. All were recurring themes of his 40-year radio career.
But defining E. as merely a voice on the radio, as just a talk show host, would be a disservice. Indeed, he stood at the nexus of a galaxy, where the worlds of civic engagement, commerce, politics and journalism orbited and sometimes collided with each other. The range of men and women he had on speed dial attested to his stretch of influence, and points of passion. So did those who admired him.
Grassroots groups called on him for help opening doors or airing a good word about good works. Corporate players chatted him up so they could figure out how to be better citizens. Elected officials and those vying for office, of both parties, sought his counsel on policy approaches—and suffered his verbal lashes if their moves failed to put people first.
He was among the city’s dwindling cadre of great public citizens, people who used their influence and Rolodex to further goals beyond and greater than themselves. Given today’s standard, his outlook was both throwback and remarkably fresh.
When I first met him, I used to think it was his early Catholic education that instilled his sense of service. It wasn’t unusual for him to have five events to attend in the same day, six days in a row. He told me later that his drive came largely from his desire to live up to the example of his father, who modeled early on what it meant to be a man. Not just in his household, but in his community, and what those responsibilities meant, for him and those watching him, especially his two sons.
There was no greater joy E. took than in being a father, from his days as a single dad to his years as a blissfully married one. Loving his wife, raising Rashid and Langston, helped define him as a man, he told me. Almost fanatically, he would seek to help other men discover that joy. In a culture that too often touts the antithesis—especially among black men—his example helped affirm and guide others, as the faces of and reflections from grief-stricken men mourning him reminded me. As did those of the many women, who chuckled at his flirtatious ways, knowing his unwavering devotion to the love his life, Lisa.
As mourners, we span generations, ethnicities, even cities. He had an unfailing eye for talent and would help you advance on your career ladder, regardless of your career or rung on that ladder. He invested time and money, vacillated from strict coach to your biggest cheerleader. Male or female. Gay or straight. Black, white, Asian, Latino or “other.”
I was among those beneficiaries, for E. had a hand in coloring my Philly experience, from my early days until now. The Unity Day festival he helped create. The protest buses to D.C. from Progress Plaza he helped organize to push for a holiday for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and against apartheid in South Africa. The concerts and parties he promoted. The Concerned Black Men Inc. scholarship programs and Black History Month bees. The Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, fiercely proud in being among the earliest members of an organization that started here and went national, birthing chapters and careers across the country.
We were teammates in the crew that conceived and produced the Mid-Atlantic Emmy-Award-winning 2003 mayoral debate between incumbent John Street and challenger Sam Katz. And I’ll never forget the Afro wig he donned last year to help Philly boogie into the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest Soul Train line to honor Don Cornelius. Or the many stories. Or the open invitation to the family pool.
From the serious to the zany and the spaces between, he has been a presence in my life. And in speaking with so many people this past week, I realize that my story is just a variation of a theme. There are countless other people with their own E. stories.
He told me once that, “E. stands for ‘excellent,’ but my mother called me Ernest.” It just as easily could have stood for exceptional or extraordinary; for he was both.
For me, it will stand for everlasting, because that will be the stretch of his impact on my life. And I know I’m not alone.
Radio One will present a public memorial for E. Steven Collins on Sat., Sept. 21, from noon to 3 p.m. at Sharon Baptist Church, 3955 Conshohocken Ave. In lieu of flowers, the Collins Family asks that tax-deductible donations be made to Concerned Black Men Inc., 7200 N. 21st St., Philadelphia, PA 19138.
Nia Ngina Meeks is a Philadelphia-based writer and news analyst. Find her on Twitter at @nmpurpose.