Jacksonville 'giant,' community leader will be missed by many

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Stopping by Dr. Chester Aikens' dental office Friday, Steve Smith couldn't help but remember the first time they met.

He had a toothache and few options.

"I said, 'Doc, I don't have any insurance. I'm in law school. I'm off my parents' insurance, you know?'" said Smith, an attorney. "He said, 'Come see me.'"

Aikens, a well-known community leader, died Thursday after suffering a heart attack at City Hall following a Jacksonville Retirement Reform Task Force meeting. He was 62.

Smith is just one of many in the community to whom Aikens extended a helping hand. But his influence reached far beyond the walls of his office.

After law school, Smith said, Aikens became his mentor, a role he also played for Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown.

"I'm going to miss him -- a friend, someone who was a mentor for me for over two decades," Brown said. "Jacksonville lost a big giant in our community, and we're better off for having him here."

It wasn't just Brown who turned to Aikens for advice. Former Mayor John Delaney did, too.

"I think every mayor that's been in office has worked with Chester Aikens," Delaney said. "And again, he never wanted anything. He didn't want a thing. He wasn't after any money or any contracts or any appointment. He just wanted to help the community and help you do your job."

Aikens moved to Jacksonville 30 years ago, setting up his dental practice. A previous president of the National Dental Association, Aikens returned to school, earning both business and law degrees.

Family and friends say he was passionate about serving his community as a member of the Jacksonville Retirement Reform Task Force, Civic Council and Aviation Authority, but especially as a member of Bethel Baptist Institutional Church.

"Doc was a busy person in the church," member Kenneth Reddick said. "He was an usher. Even though sometimes you could see that he was in pain serving others, he still was always at his post."

Aikens also served in the Florida Army Reserve National Guard for 11 years. He made headlines when he integrated the Florida Yacht Club after being previously denied because of his race.

Attorney and friend Bill Scheu nominated him for membership.

"He had great courage, because I can't imagine the courage it would take for one black guy to join a historically old white club, which I love that club, but those were the times," Scheu said. "And so those are times that we have come through, and Chester had the guts to be part of that."

A man of courage, service and faith, valuing education community and family -- that's how those touched by Aikens' life say he will be remembered.

"I wish that we had more people like him," Reddick said. "The community would be a lot better."

Aikens leaves behind a wife and two sons. Arrangements are still being made, but services will likely be held at Bethel Baptist.