Funeral held for John Stroger

January 23, 2008 4:45:54 PM PST
More than 1,000 people bid farewell Wednesday to former Cook County Board President John H. Stroger.John Stroger was the first African American to be elected county board president. He died last week from complications from a stroke.

One speaker began his eulogy by looking out over the crowd and saying "welcome to this meeting of the extended 8th Ward Democratic committee."

There were plenty of people in attendance whose names you'd find on the city or county payroll. But they're not the only ones remembering a politician with a huge heart.

In the heart of the 8th Ward at the epicenter of John Stroger's powerbase, the former Cook County board president was remembered as much for being kind as being connected.

"I've lost a close friend, among the most decent men I've ever known in politics or in any walk of life," said Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

Mayor Daley appeared a bit choked up as he talked about Stroger, a man who broke with many other African-Americans to support Daley in his first race for mayor against Harold Washington.

Stroger also helped the mayor's brother John gain a powerful post on the county board.

"Once he talked to you and gave his word, that was it. It's unfortunate, rare, in today's politics. He could disagree, but it never became personal," said the finance chairman.

"We need to remember John Stroger's heart was like a big tent, and underneath that tent (were) a lot of people of all colors, of all backgrounds, of all walks of life. John cared," said Bobbie Steele, former Cook Co. board president.

Others remembered Stroger as a man who preached empowerment through politics.

"A voteless people is a hopeless people, he used to say," said Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th Ward.

While there is a hospital stamped with Stroger's name - and many other programs that help the needy that are his legacy - it is perhaps his son Todd's ascension to the County board president's job that is the biggest testament to the loyalty John Stroger inspired.

Mayor Daley closed "his" eulogy today by speaking directly to John Stroger.

"I want to thank you for your friendship. It was a two-way street. You inspired all of us. Thank you for your advice and counsel as mayor, as state's attorney, and as state senator. Thank you, John, for your friendship," said Daley.

There's no doubt people felt a connection to John Stroger. He was quick with a smile and a laugh. And that endeared him to many.

But critics will tell you one of the many ways Stroger helped people was by putting them on the payroll. Politically, he grew up in the old Democratic machine, and he continued its traditions.

Stroger was one of the most powerful politicians in the history of Chicago. Some of the biggest political names in Illinois came to pay respects to Cook County's first black board president.

The 78-year-old Stroger was remembered for his lengthy and powerful political career that spanned more than three decades.

Stroger Hospital, the domestic violence court, the CORE Center for people with HIV/AIDS: all were built under John Stroger's leadership and serve people who are experiencing tough times, and all were mentioned Wednesday as tangible examples of how Stroger looked out for a class of people often overlooked by society.

It was a celebration as much as a farewell, more laughter than tears. Senator Dick Durbin remembered John Stroger's knack for getting him out of long, boring political dinners by telling the crowd the two wanted to stay but had important business to attend to.

"John finished his speech, we bid adieu. 'I said where are we going?" He said, 'Hecky's BBQ! -- and don't tell Yoni!,'" said Sen. Dick Durbin, (D) Illinois.

More than anything, Stroger's remarkable success story is being celebrated this day. He was a man from Arkansas -- born in the depths of the Depression -- who moved to Chicago, overcame bigotry and became one of the most powerful politicians in the state.

"When he gave his word, he stuck with you. He didn't shift support with the political winds and go back on it like many today. For that we will always appreciate him," said Mayor Daley.

"He was overwhelmingly nice, and I don't want to surprise you, but not everyone in politics is nice, but John Stroger was," said Governor Blagojevich.

"He was obsessed with taking care of people who could not take care of themselves. Whether it was employing people, they call it padding, or sick people who did not have health insurance, he was kind of the people's guy," said Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rainbow-PUSH Coalition.

"He was there for the people and I think that's the best that can be said for any of us," said Carol Moseley Braun, former US senator.

Even those who clashed with Stroger over patronage and pork say John Stroger's personality made him one of the most likeable people with which to disagree.