Former Cook County Board President John Stroger dies
Friday, January 18, 2008
Former Cook County Board President John H. Stroger died this morning. He was 78.
The news spread quickly Friday morning with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley publicly announced Stroger's passing this morning at an interfaith ministers meeting he was attending, a source at the breakfast said.
"We are confirming that he has in fact died," said Chris Geovanis, a spokeswoman for Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, John Stroger's son.
Stroger was the first black president to lead Cook County government, and was felled by a stroke as he ran for president in 2006. Although in the hospital after the stroke, he still defeated Democratic challenger Forrest Claypool in a closely-contested primary.
Democratic leaders went on to install Todd Stroger in his father's place on the ballot in the general election, and he defeated challenger Tony Peraica in another closely fought election.
John Stroger has been hailed as a leader who always ensured adequate health care for the poor. In the 1990s, he championed the fight for the construction of a new county hospital at a time when many suggested it would be better simply privatize care for the hospital in conjunction with existing hospitals.
The new hospital is named in his honor.
Stroger was also criticized for being a throwback to the old days of machine politics, and a proponent of tax-and-spend politics complete with patronage hires.
But even those who strongly disagreed with his politics praised him as a man of character who truly cared for the poor.
Former Cook County Board President Bobbie Steele often disagreed with him, but said "I learned a lot from him and he's certainly the one who inspired me to be more committed to county government."
"He wanted to help people," she said.
Cook County Board members and others paid homage to the elder Stroger in May 2007 with the unveiling of a photograph of him to hang with the visages of other past presidents outside the county boardroom.
The ceremony brought praise from unlikely corners - a suburban Republican commissioner.
Then-Commissioner Carl Hansen of Mount Prospect said at the time that the former president's face said much about Stroger's character.
"It says what it is like to grow up dirt poor in Helena, Ark., in the Depression ... when men used to go down the back alley with a pie plate and say, 'Work for food,' " said Hansen, a frequent opponent of Stroger's on county issues..
Stroger was a natural politician. "John enjoyed government. He really enjoyed government. This was his world," Hansen said.
And, Hansen said, he understood discrimination. " He was a victim of discrimination. He understood it as probably as none of us can understand it ... because he was so exposed (to it) in the halls of government where he worked.
"But he always believed he could make a difference. And make a difference he did. I can remember when he was first on the board ... and immediately he was working on trying to get better health services for people," said Hansen, who recalled the ferocity with which Stroger worked for the poor.
Childhood friend Dr. Robert Johnson said at the time that he watched Stroger grow from someone with little direction to a man whose purpose became to help everyone.
"I saw the transformation of John from a gangbanger to a college kid," said Johnson, evoking nervous laughter from the boardroom.
"I told the truth," responded Johnson, drawing laughter.
Donna Dunnings, Stroger's niece, later said "gangs" in racially charged Helena, Ark., were different from what we think of today. "You traveled in a gang for your own safety," she said.
Stroger began his tenure as county board president in 1994, having served as a commissioner since 1970. He did try to move up the political ladder, but lost a bid for Congress in 1980.