Chicagoans are mourning the loss of Cook County Commissioner Robert Steele (2nd), who died unexpectedly on June 19 at the age of 55. Steele, a Type-2 diabetic, had been recovering from pneumonia.
A lifelong resident of North Lawndale, Steele became commissioner of the 2nd District, which covers Chicago’s Loop and a significant portion of the West Side, in 2006 — the year Steele’s mother, Bobbie Steele, served a stint as Cook County board president. When Bobbie retired that year, Robert was appointed to replace her and serve out her term, to which she had just been re-elected.
Before his tenure as a county commissioner, Steele had been a community outreach manager for the Chicago Park District and executive director of the Lawndale Business & Local Development Corporation.
During his time on the county board, Steele was president pro-tempore, heading up meetings when Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was absent. He was also chairman of the Environmental Control Committee and the Contract Compliance Committee, and vice chairman of the Health and Hospitals Committee.
In a statement released last week, Preckwinkle praised her longtime board ally, whose life, she said, “was marked by his long career in public service.”
“He was a tireless advocate for organ donation after receiving a kidney transplant from his sister [in 2010] and could always be counted on to explain why organ donation is so important,” Preckwinkle said.
In addition to his board duties, Steele sat on the boards of numerous local and national organizations, including Mt. Sinai Hospital, the Gift of Hope Organ and Tissue Donor Network, and Frazier Preparatory Academy.
Steele was also a board member of the National Association of Counties Officials (NACO) and the National Association of Black County Officials (NABCO), for which he served as president from 2008 until 2010, according to Preckwinkle’s statement.
Shortly after Steele’s death was made public, elected officials and community leaders from across the state took to social media to offer their condolences.
In June 19 Twitter posts, Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin (1st), whose district encompasses large swaths of the West Side, described Steele as “a committed and dedicated public servant” while Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer (10th) said she was “heartbroken” by the loss of a friend who was a “tireless advocate for his community.”
In a statement, Mayor Rahm Emanuel described Steele as a “committed Chicagoan who dedicated his life to public service and strengthening communities.”
Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. said in a statement that he had been “especially close to Steele and his entire family this year.”
“Robert was co-chair of our first PUSH Tech Expo 2017 being held during this year’s annual PUSH convention,” Jackson said.
City of Chicago Treasurer Kurt Summers said he “had the incredible privilege of working with Commissioner Steele” when he was Preckwinkle’s chief of staff.
“I will forever be touched by his spirit,” Summer said. “My prayers are with former President Bobbie Steele and the rest of Robert’s family and many friends during this incredibly difficult time.”
During an interview on Saturday, Congressman Danny K. Davis (7th) said Steele was a “true son of the community.”
“He spent his whole life in North Lawndale,” Davis said. “That’s the only place he’s ever been other than going away to college, to Morgan State. He was bright, articulate, always energetic although he was a juvenile diabetic. He’d been engaged all of his life. I did five minutes on him on the floor of the House the other day and I mentioned that my family and I moved into North Lawndale the year Bob was born.”
In a statement released last week, Steele’s family said they called the late commissioner “Man of Steele,” partly because of his work ethic.
“He loved working in the trenches among community organizations, churches, schools, at-risk youth, and senior citizens,” the statement read.
Davis added that, more than his official position, Steele was defined by his commitment to his community.
“Bob was not just a man with a title,” Davis said. “The title meant nothing to him. He was Robert Steele before he ever had a title and he was doing the same things without that title that he did with it. We’re going to miss him.”
Visitation will be held on Friday, June 30 from 5 to 8 p.m., at Lawndale Community Church’s Agape Chapel, 3827 W. Ogden Ave.
A wake and celebration of life service will take place at Freedom Baptist Church, 4541 Harrison St. in Hillside, on Saturday, July 1 from 10 to 11:15 a.m., with the funeral immediately following the wake.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to the Greater Westside Community Coalition, in memory of Cook County Commissioner Robert B. Steele, 3936 Roosevelt Road, Chicago, IL 60624.