Skip to contents
Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Beloved North Lawndale Gym Teacher And His Navy Veteran Best Friend Killed In ‘Senseless’ West Side Shooting

Holy Family School gym teacher Joseph Stokes and parent Dejuan Thomas were fatally shot in Stokes' backyard March 8. The two had been best friends since high school, family said.

Joseph Stokes (left) was the physical education teacher at Holy Family. Holy Family parent and Navy veteran Dejuan Thomas (right) was also killed in the incident.
  • Credibility:

NORTH LAWNDALE — Students, teachers and loved ones at Holy Family School in North Lawndale are grieving the loss of two members of the school community who were killed earlier this month in West Humboldt Park.

Joseph Stokes, the physical education teacher at Holy Family, and Dejuan Thomas, a parent at the school, were fatally shot about 6 p.m. March 8 in the 3700 block of West Iowa Street, police said. Tina Stokes, Joseph Stokes’ younger sister, said the two men were in Stokes’ backyard when they were shot.

Both men were taken to Mt. Sinai Hospital and pronounced dead. Detectives are investigating the shooting, but it is unknown what led to the attack.

Joseph Stokes and Thomas had been best friends since high school, Tina Stokes said.

“Joe was really sweet, caring, kind. He always liked to help others. He would always stop what he was doing to help me because I’m the baby,” Tina Stokes said.

Joseph Stokes was a football fanatic, Tina Stokes said. He played football in high school and college, and he previously coached at Proviso East, she said. He has two children: a 13-year-old who attends Holy Family and a 15-year-old who graduated from the school last year, Tina Stokes said.

“He did a lot with his boys. He took them a lot of places. They’re definitely taking after their dad, and they’re heavily into sports, especially football. My youngest nephew … he’s like a mini Joe,” Tina Stokes said.

The loss of Holy Family’s physical education teacher has weighed heavily on students and teachers, Principal Candace Smith said. Some students have been hesitant to go into the gymnasium knowing they won’t be greeted by the teacher who was “always positive and optimistic,” Smith said.

“He was here through COVID and still managed to bring so much joy. … He walked into a room and it just lit up,” Smith said. “One of the things people are missing most is his energy. He bounced when he walked. It was just contagious.”

The physical education instructor worked hard to cultivate an individual relationship with each student and learn their personalities, said Holy Family CEO Cheryl Collins. Joseph Stokes was someone who “encouraged them to be their best selves, and not just in the gym,” she said.

Thomas also was a pillar within the school and the community, Collins said. Thomas was a very involved parent and had a second-grader who has been at Holy Family since preschool, Collins said.

“He would come and talk to teachers, and he would be here at the school for various things. He was very much present at the school. He was very proud, and he referred to his daughter as a daddy’s girl,” Collins said.

Thomas was a Navy veteran who worked at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center helping people transition into civilian life. His colleagues at the VA Medical Center described him as “down to earth” and “someone that people loved to talk to,” Collins said.

Dejuan Thomas

Thomas’ family could not be reached for comment.

Holy Family School brought in counselors to help the students and staff process their grief. Students wrote letters of support and made cards and posters that will be shared at the wakes for Stokes and Thomas, Smith said.

“The most devastating part is hearing kindergarteners ask why somebody would want to hurt such wonderful people,” Smith said. “You lost them for senselessness. There was no rhyme or reason.”

The families of the two best friends are praying somebody will come forward with information that can help detectives track down the shooter, Tina Stokes said.

“It was always good times with my brother. I’m just so thankful that I had the chance to be his baby sister,” Tina Stokes said. “My brother was a great guy — him and his best friend. The fact that this happened in his backyard, it’s ridiculous.”

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation. 

Thanks for subscribing to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods. Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.

Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast”: