Michael Townsend Sr. was named Rotarian of the Year for his leadership on the first Rotary-sponsored Chicagoland Peace Summit. | Danielle Neveles~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 5, 2013 6:02AM
His name was Albert Spencer Jr., and he was a “little” cousin to Michael Townsend Sr.
The tragedy occurred on Jan. 12. Spencer, 20, was shot in the head twice on the balcony of an apartment in Memphis, Tenn., according to published reports. He died days later after his family decided to take him off life support.
Authorities have said Spencer was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and he was not the intended target.
Townsend thinks to himself about Spencer, about how his cousin would be doing at college.
“You never know what it’s like to lose a loved one to violence,” Townsend said, “until you do.”
It is the kind of tragedy Townsend has been working to prevent, since even before it happened.
A senior educational consultant and project leader for Governors State University’s Metropolitan Institute for Leadership, Townsend, 62, of Park Forest, often works with young people and hears their stories of fear, fear of walking to the store or playing outside.
Their stories and his personal experiences with violence have made him committed to bringing peace to local communities.
In October, Townsend organized the Rotary Club-sponsored Chicagoland Peace Summit, an event to raise awareness about the severity of violence and develop solutions to eradicate it in the community. The summit brought together politicians, community leaders, clergy, teens and even some gang members for a daylong dialogue on achieving peace in the Chicago area.
The event was deemed such a success that Townsend was named the Chicagoland Rotarian of the Year at the annual district conference in May in Delavan, Wis.
Prior to receiving it, Townsend had no idea he was even up for the award.
“I was so surprised and completely elated,” he said.
Townsend has been a Rotary Club member for seven years. But this past year, he decided to get more involved with the Rotary Club of Park Forest, which according to its website is one of 33,334 clubs worldwide dedicated to community service, world peace and international understanding.
The year’s theme was “peace through service” and Townsend said his goal was simple: “To help people in need.”
Townsend had been committed to helping with peace efforts even before losing his cousin. In 2012, he attended a Soka Gakkai International Buddhist “Victory Over Violence” exhibition and gave a presentation to the Park Forest club.
Other members were inspired and formed a peace committee. Townsend also led the first Rotary contingent in the Bud Billiken Parade and other community parades, carrying the Peace Summit message to seek change in our culture, according to Governors State.
“No one has ever brought things like he has to the table and stuck with it,” Park Forest Rotary Club assistant Gov. J.N. Settles said.
The Peace Summit connected local groups to a common cause, giving youths a chance to tell their stories, and share their concerns and fears. More important, Townsend said, “We learned what they want and how to help them.”
Townsend’s wife, Minnie, was excited to see his efforts recognized. She’s always admired his work.
“He worked very hard and diligently pulling everything together and putting in long hours,” she said. “I’m so proud he was able to do that and use his skills.”
The couple have been married for nearly 38 years, and Townsend said without his wife’s support, he couldn’t have done what he has.
Townsend grew up in Memphis but his education and work brought him to the south suburbs. Now, with three young grandchildren to concern himself with, his passion to end violence is ongoing.
“We’re trying live a legacy of peace,” he said.