Philip J. Rock, the once mighty Democratic Illinois Senate President who would serve in that role from 1979 to 1993, died Friday. He was 78.
But before Rock could conquer Springfield, he had to navigate his way through the rough and tumble political back alleys of the West Side of Chicago.
He was born in Austin and lived many of his adult years with his family in the neighborhood’s pleasant Midway Park section — an area stocked with Queen Anne and Victorian mansions designed by famous architects like Frederick R. Schock.
Josh Radinsky, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, lived across the alley from Rock. Radinsky told the Chicago Tribune in 2014 that his family moved onto Race Avenue in 1970, just when other whites were fleeing the neighborhood for greener pastures.
“I remember people leaving in the middle of the night,” Radinsky told the Tribune at the time. “The houses were spectacular. We bought a big house for $19,500. It was during the redlining period, and the banks and real estate agents were beginning to make a killing scaring whites and lying to blacks. Segregation was intentionally created. It wasn’t accidental.”
Joe English, who also moved to the area in 1970, told the Tribune the same story.
“There was wholesale change within an 18-month period,” English said. “Whites were literally giving their houses away. Allied (moving) trucks were lined up along the streets and causing traffic jams. (The homeowners) would give you the keys and say, ‘Just assume the mortgage.'”
Between 1970 and 1980, according to U.S. Census data, Austin went from around 90 percent white, or non-black, to over 90 percent African-American.
Rock, like English and Radinsky, was one of the whites who bucked the demographic trend and stayed behind.
Part of Rock’s decision-making calculus was political. In his 2012 autobiography “Nobody Calls Just to Say Hello,” Rock recalls one of the defining moments of his political career. In 1964, having just graduated law school and newly married, Rock bypassed the law firm applications and headed for what he hoped would be the open embrace of William Clark, the state’s Democratic attorney general at the time.
“Some law school friends were working for [Clark and] spoke highly of him and suggested that I talk to him,” Rock writes. “Clark had been attorney general since 1961 and had served in the state legislature before that. I called and made an appointment to see him.”
Towards the end of a “good conversation” inside Clark’s office in the old State of Illinois Building at 160 North LaSalle, Rock writes that the attorney general asked him to name his ward committeeman and the ward he lived in.
Rock didn’t know the answer to either. He did, however, know enough to tell Clark that he lived in Austin, on the city’s western edge.
“Clark looked at me and said, ‘You live in the Thirty-Seventh Ward. Your committeeman is an old friend of mine; he’s the Illinois Senate minority leader, and his name is Art McGloon,'” Rock writes.
“At the time, the Republicans controlled the Illinois Senate. My political education was beginning, and I didn’t know how lucky I was to live where I did.”
Rock’s start in politics would prove to be the reverse of Abner Mikva’s, the University of Chicago-trained lawyer and U.S. Supreme Court clerk who thought he would walk into a ward committeeman’s office one night in 1948 unannounced.
“I walked in and I said, ‘I’d like to volunteer to work for [Adlai] Stevenson and [Paul] Douglas,” Mikva recalled in a now-famous interview.
“This quintessential Chicago ward committeeman took the cigar out of his mouth and glared at me and said, ‘Who sent you?’ I said, ‘Nobody sent me.’ He put the cigar back in his mouth and he said, ‘We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.’ This was the beginning of my political career in Chicago.”
Clark was Rock’s somebody. After their conversation, Clark got on the phone with McGloon and said, ‘I’d like to send this young man in to see you at the ward office, and I’m interested in hiring him. If you give your blessing, it’s done.”
So Rock trekked over to the 37th Ward office to see McGloon and then-Alderman Tom Casey, who were both impressed with the young law grad.
“They explained that they would dearly love to have me as a member of the organization and yes, I could have the job with the attorney general,” Rock writes. “That’s how it started.”
In 1971, Rock succeeded McGloon in the state senate, representing the 18th district. In 1977, however, just as his political star was rising, he decided to move out of Austin and into nearby Oak Park.
He may have been a master political tactician, but he couldn’t control the environment around him and his family. He writes that his house in Austin had been burglarized three times, fortunately “no one was home any of those times.”
He had young kids whose “tricycles and bikes and scooters” were stolen (“just taken away after being pushed off”). Rock was in line to become the 37th Ward committeeman, but he didn’t believe his ward was safe enough to live in and raise his family.
But the move to nearby Oak Park wasn’t without its own problems. Some independents in Oak Park and on the West Side looked upon the move as a devious political maneuver — a power grab by another “Daley Democrat” encroaching on the suburbs.
Through it all, though, Rock adapted enough to survive, which might be considered the West Side’s primary influence on the longtime legislator. Rock served 22 years in the state senate, 14 as senate president — longer than anyone who has ever held the position.