News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

October 10, 2010

Mark Bennett: The ‘dynamic’ life of Roger Cheeks has opened doors and left its mark

TERRE HAUTE — Roger Cheeks returned to his hometown this month to inspire others, using his singing voice and Gospel tunes in a concert on the Indiana State University campus.

It’s a familiar situation for him. His new album, “Worship from the Heart,” is the fourth of his career. Cheeks has performed with church choirs since his dad served as a pastor in Terre Haute. In 1992, Cheeks won the Rising Star Gospel Showcase Amateur Talent competition in Indianapolis. Through the years, he’s sung alongside notables such as Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr., from the 1970s pop musical group The 5th Dimension.

“That’s just a part of what I do,” Cheeks said last week from Virginia, where he’s lived and worked as director of community life at Regent University since 1997.

Nineteen years ago, though, Cheeks did something unprecedented — he became the first African-American elected to city office in Terre Haute. Cheeks won the District 6 seat on the City Council as a Democrat, outpolling his Republican opponent 1,183 votes to 555.

“I felt there was a need to run, a need to break ground,” Cheeks said. “There were costs. It was time away from my family. I was criticized. But that’s part of a leadership position.”

Still, he added, “I enjoyed all of it.”

Cheeks was 29 years old when he took the oath of office on New Year’s Day 1992.

His election, said friend and 1991 campaign treasurer John Newton, was “kind of an inspiration to other young people” and called Cheeks “dynamic” and “an outstanding young man.” Cheeks had taken his talent as a basketball standout at Terre Haute North Vigo High School on to Southeastern Louisiana University, and then returned to this city.

Such notoriety also increased demands on Cheeks’ schedule and time, Newton recalled. Cheeks balanced family activities, a job as assistant dean of student life at ISU, a burgeoning singing career, community involvement and pastoral duties at his father’s church with the City Council role. He and his wife had three children and another on the way. “So the plate was full,” acknowledged Cheeks, now 47.

His historic term had a couple difficult moments, including its homestretch. After Cheeks and his family moved out of District 6 in 1995, that residency change required him to resign a few months before his term was to end that December. He’d already announced, in December 1994, his decision not to seek re-election. Also in 1995, he resigned his ISU job, and told the Tribune-Star that year, “I was doing too many things at one time.” He focused on his family, pastoral duties and Gospel music career.

Looking back, the experience in politics “grew me wiser,” Cheeks said.

“Now, in retrospect, I wouldn’t have traded it for the world,” he added.

Two years after his City Council stint, Cheeks and his family moved to Virginia. Though he loved Terre Haute, and still does, “My wife and I were looking for something more.” After they visited a ministerial friend in Virginia, Cheeks said he told his wife, “I feel like this is where God wants us to be.”

They’ve lived there ever since, and Cheeks is now in his 12th year at Regent University, which is based in Virginia Beach and which was founded by evangelist Pat Robertson. The decision to move proved to be “very good for us, very good for our children,” Cheeks said. “It was a culture shock for all of us, because you’ve got more minorities here than you have in Terre Haute.”

Cheeks follows politics, still, but emphasized, “I consider myself a ‘theocrat.’ I consider myself a person who is really of no party, but I vote for character.” A theocrat, he said, is “a God-conscious voter.” On the conventional scale, he said, “I’m more moderate than I am liberal. I’m not wholly conservative, but in some cases, I am.”

He attended a national prayer service for victims of Hurricane Katrina in Washington, D.C., and sat just nine rows behind President Bush, Vice President Cheney and their administration. As for Democrats, Cheeks has seen inclusiveness improve with the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president.

“There’s still some fear of including some people in the mix,” Cheeks said. “We need to see people as people, for their character and not the color of their skin, as Martin Luther King said. That still holds true 60 years later.”

Cheeks hopes his own time in politics on Terre Haute’s City Council helped open the door for more minorities in his hometown. “I would hope they say, ‘He did it. I can, too,’” he said.

During the past decade, Cheeks said he’s mulled pursuing public office again, perhaps returning to Terre Haute to run for mayor or Congress. His mother, 88, still lives here; his father passed away eight years ago. Cheeks has also been approached, in the past, about seeking a city council position in Chesapeake, Va.

Regardless, Cheeks has learned much since his election 19 years ago, and continues to learn.

Years ago, he asked Bishop George McKinney — national leader of the Church of God in Christ — for some words of advice. “He said two things — trust and obey God, and enjoy the journey,” Cheeks recalled.

“I’m enjoying my life,” Cheeks added, “because I’ve been through mountains, hills and valleys, and I’m still here.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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