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Family, politicians honor Stroger
Daley, Durbin and others speak in packed church

Thursday, January 24, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Gary Washburn

John Stroger, the young man from little Helena, Ark., who came to Chicago seeking better opportunities more than five decades ago, was lauded Wednesday by the powerful of Illinois politics who knew him as one of their own.

At Stroger's funeral service, Mayor Richard Daley became emotional as he remembered his old friend and political ally. Rev. Jesse Jackson had the crowd of mourners on their feet. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) recounted Stroger's contributions to the needy whose cause he made his own as president of the Cook County Board.

"A few days ago, his great heart failed him," Durbin said. "But his great heart never failed the poor, the voiceless."

Stroger, 78, died last Friday of complications from a debilitating stroke he suffered in 2006.

Seeking re-election that year, he won the Democratic primary from his hospital bed a week after the stroke but retired from office four months later without ever appearing in public again. Three months after that, voters elected his son, Todd, to succeed him in the county's top job after he replaced his father on the ballot.

On Wednesday, long lines of mourners walked up the center aisle of St. Felicitas Catholic Church on the South Side to pay their final respects at Stroger's casket before the start of a memorial service and funeral mass that lasted more than 2 1/2 hours. Family members, politicians, elected officials, union leaders, old friends and residents of the 8th Ward, where he served for years as Democratic committeeman, filled the pews of the large church and stood in aisles along the walls when the seats ran out.

Stroger built a dominating organization and aligned himself with the city's premier political family on his way to serving three terms as the County Board's first African-American president. He came of age during the heyday of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley's political machine and applied those lessons decades later, unapologetically doling out jobs and contracts to family, friends and supporters.

"He was good for the neighborhood," Roosevelt Bell, 89, a longtime Stroger neighbor from

Blackstone Avenue
, said before the service began. "He was good for the city of Chicago. He was a fair guy. He helped everybody. ... I remember when my first kid was born and I wanted to take him to the County Hospital. People were laying all in the hallways. After John took it over, he turned it up."

Stroger, who pushed for improvements in county health care over his long career on the County Board, realized what he considered a capstone accomplishment as president when he pushed through construction of a new facility to replace the aging and outmoded Cook County Hospital. The new hospital, bearing his name, opened in 2002.

Stroger was "a gentle, quiet, determined giant whose life transformed our lives for the better, who reconciled extremes and made all of us stronger," Jackson said. "On your feet," he said as the audience rose. "Put your hands together for John. ... Let me hear you scream."

Gov. Rod Blagojevich said Stroger was "a good and decent man and had a big heart and cared about people."

"I don't want to shock anybody here, but not everybody in politics is genuinely nice," Blagojevich said. "John Stroger was."

Mayor Daley, his voice faltering at times during his eulogy, called Stroger a "groundbreaking leader who worked tirelessly on behalf of those who could not help themselves."

"I have lost a close friend, one of the most decent people I've ever known in politics," Daley said. "He was driven from an early age, not to make a name for himself, but to ensure that those who were falling through the cracks in our society were protected."

Richard J. Daley backed Stroger's election as the first black committeeman of the 8th Ward and helped get him elected to the County Board.

Those who knew Stroger spoke of his loyalty, even when it came at a cost.

Stroger took heat in 1983 when he was the only African-American committeeman to back Richard M. Daley over Harold Washington, who became the city's first black mayor.

Board critics who clashed with Stroger over what they contended were bloat and rampant patronage in county government, including Democrat Forrest Claypool and Republican Tony Peraica, were among those who attended the service.

"He could disagree without being disagreeable," Claypool told reporters before entering the church. "John Stroger was somebody you liked whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him. He was a gentleman. ... That type of civility in politics is missing too often."

Durbin reminisced about the first time he met Stroger 30 years ago as a young Democratic candidate from Springfield who had been advised to get to know people in Chicago. Durbin said he walked into a restaurant at
95th Street
Stony Island Avenue
, and Stroger proceeded to introduce him to two members of the Illinois House, James "Bulljive" Taylor and Harold Washington.

Taylor and Washington "proceeded to get into a little fracas," Durbin said. "John Stroger put his arm around me and said, 'You're going to be leaving now,' which I did. From that point forward, we were friends."

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