Leon Despres dies at 101

May 6, 2009 4:43:57 PM PDT
Leon Despres passed away on Wednesday morning at the age of 101. He was a former Chicago alderman and a tireless, longtime activist.But he may be best known as a frequent and outspoken critic of the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.

He was a former alderman, an accomplished attorney and author. But those who knew him best say Leon Despres was much more. He was a man of principal.

"He is the gold standard for public service. He took on his colleagues and the mayor and his allies. What he did is what he thought was good for the people," said Abner Mikva, retired federal judge.

Former judge and congressman Abner Mikva went back more than 50 years with Leon Despres, working on Despres' first campaign for the city council in 1955. He served for twenty years and, as he wrote in his 2005 memoir, challenging the Daley machine.

He was a major thorn in the side of former mayor Richard J. Daley. But his son, the current mayor, issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon saying of Despres: "He was a major participant in the debate on every major issue Chicago has faced in the last half century and his strong voice made a great contribution to way our city has evolved in that time." In fact, Despres defended the current mayor several years ago when his administration was facing questions from federal investigators.

"I think he is being condemned out of hand just being questioned doesn't mean you are guilty. Although it is quite serious," said Leon Despres.

He managed to stay involved even as he passed the century mark in age and was thrilled with the election of his Hyde Park neighbor Barack Obama. Abner Mikva calls him a man for all seasons but most of all he was a gentleman.

"There was just this civility about him," said Mikva.

South Side congressman Bobby Rush also issued a statement about the death of Leon Despres, calling him a consistent defender of freedom. Rush says Leon was always on the right side of history and he used his tremendous gifts to lift the boats stuck on the bottom. Hyde Park and the city of Chicago have lost an icon.


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