Last week, the City of Chicago lost two political giants, but of different statures.
Former Cook County Board President John Stroger died Friday, nearly two years after suffering a stroke during a reelection campaign. Stroger was 79 at the time of his death. His funeral was Wednesday at St. Felicitas Church, 1526 E. 84th St., and was attended by friends, family and elected officials from Chicago and around the state.
On Saturday, former Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer died after a long illness at age 73. Sawyer was the city’s second black mayor, succeeding Harold Washington, who died in office November 1987. Sawyer’s ascent as the city’s mayor was fueled with controversy as a splintered City Council squabbled into the early morning hours of Dec. 2, 1987, finally appointing Sawyer as mayor over then-Ald. Tim Evans, a Washington ally.
During a press conference on the West Side Sunday for Cook County State’s Attorney candidate Howard Brookins, himself a 21st Ward alderman, elected officials there to throw their support behind Brookins also took time to talk about Stroger and Sawyer.
Cong. Danny Davis, who was an alderman during the “Council Wars” under Washington, spoke fondly about both men.
“On the heels of the death of John Stroger, we get the sad news about Eugene Sawyer, an individual many of us served with in the Chicago City Council, an individual, who like John Stroger, grew up in the deep south. Eugene grew up in Alabama, and as a matter of fact, he often said that one of his greatest joys that he had in his life was to serve as a bodyguard for Dr. Martin Luther King, when his fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, was sort of guarding Dr. King. Not as a sense of security protection, but being a part of the phalanx of individuals who were with him. Gene often cited that as being one of the greatest experience he ever had.”
Davis also spoke about Sawyer’s quiet, dignified and soft-spoken demeanor.
“Eugene Sawyer was one of the most gentlemanly-elected men that I’ve ever known. Oftentimes, you don’t get to be an elected official by being gentlemanly, but Gene Sawyer was soft-spoken. He was always one willing to listen to people. He was always reaching and looking for comprise, and had the ability to get along. I personally felt sadden that the end of Gene’s career was in controversy, surrounding the death of Harold Washington, and the election of Sawyer as mayor. And I’m sure that always weighed heavily on him.”
Davis said Sawyer stepped in during a time of chaos and confusion, and brought a level of sanity back to the city.
“I certainly want to wish his family my heartfelt condolence, and that of my family,” Davis said.
While Sawyer was more comfortable in the background, John Stroger was among the more front-and-center politicians in recent history.
A loyal and devoted member of the Democratic Party, Stroger was elected 8th Ward Committeeman in 1968. Stroger was later elected to the Cook County Board. He withstood claims of scandal and patronage, and managed to defeat incumbent board president Richard Phelan and Republican candidate Aurelia Pucinski in 1994. Stroger was the first black president of the Cook County Board, serving from 1994 to 2006. His son, Todd, replaced the elder Stroger on the ballot in the 2006 election and was later elected president. His father suffered a debilitating stroke a week before the March 2006 primary.
Supporters of John Stroger have said that his proudest public moment was when the new Cook County Hospital was named in his honor in 2001. Stroger had fought against major opposition to have a new hospital built. Supporters said he was committed to providing health care for poor Cook County residents.
Stroger also instituted a Juvenile Drug Court, and appointed a commission on women’s issues, and opened a AIDS treatment and research facility during his presidency. The recipient of many honors and awards, Stroger was past president of the National Association of Counties. He was also appointed by former President Bill Clinton as a member of the Advisory Committee On Intergovernmental Relations. Stroger was born May 19, 1929 in Helena, Ark. He graduated from Xavier University in Louisiana with a degree in business administration. In 1953, he moved to Chicago, later becoming active in the Democratic Party. Stroger attended the DePaul University College of Law, graduating in 1965, and is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, a black fraternity.
Eugene Sawyer was born Sept. 3, 1934 in Greensboro, Ala., and graduated from Alabama State University. He taught chemistry and math in Mississippi before moving to Chicago in 1957. In 1971, Sawyer was elected alderman of the 6th ward, a position he held until becoming mayor in December 1987.
Sawyer’s funeral takes place Friday at Vernon Park Church of God, 9011 South Stony Island.