It’s been 35 years since Harold Washington ruled the City–and I’ll never forget the day he died.
It was Wednesday morning, November 25, 1987, the day before Thanksgiving and I was busy preparing all the things that could be made a day ahead. I loved Thanksgiving back then. Everyone came over and filled up our big apartment on Michigan Avenue.
And we’d be like all other American families, eating everything I was making the day before, and the day of, using my good china, and we’d be sitting around the dining room table talking and laughing and gossiping and joking and drinking and reminiscing. An argument at some point of some kind would likely start. But that was all part of the fun.
I turned on the little TV on the kitchen table that Wednesday morning, next to the big window that overlooked Grant Park and went about my business.
And suddenly there was a news flash. Mayor Harold Washington, age 65, had a heart attack in City Hall. And paramedics took him to the hospital. And he died.
All day long, rather than discussing the political fallout, the political knifings that could take place in choosing a new mayor to finish his term, and another election that would have to take place in less than two years to fulfill his full term, the pundits talked of nothing but the mayor’s heart, his unwise eating habits and unhealthy weight that probably caused him to die–and how it could have been prevented.
The City got a medical school course in clogged arteries, cholesterol buildup, blood circulation problems and what all can go wrong if you don’t eat less and exercise more. Arterial health–and how to tell if everything is OK–ruled the day, as did heart valves and how they work. And healthy eating for the cardiovascular system; and skipped beats and what they mean, not to mention pain in the left arm. It all ruled the day.
I learned more about the finer points of one’s ticker that day than I ever learned before. And I had two degrees in public health; a BS from the University of Illinois and an MS from the University of Missouri.
A woman who’d recently become the prime news columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times (albeit short-lived)–and whose writing I didn’t like at all–actually wrote a fabulous column right after Thanksgiving about her father’s heart troubles. And all the wrong things she made for Thanksgiving dinner for him.
I remember she used many sticks of butter, and she was pretty shocked she did. Now that she was counting. I’d never really thought of it before. I used a lot, too. She woke me up, and to this day, I still count the number of butter sticks stuck into a homemade holiday dinner.
In any case, it was clear she was listening to the same news stories I was. Everybody was. Mayor dies; and everyone in Chicago vows to change their eating habits. After Thanksgiving. His lasting legacy to the citizens. At least for the moment.
Harold would have turned 100 this past Friday, April 15th–an ironic date, since he spent about a month in jail for not filing his income tax returns for several years. He didn’t owe much money, if any, but it showed he had a careless side. He also got his law license taken away for awhile, according to the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission, because he didn’t service clients who’d paid him. He also had a best friend who’d reportedly been a pimp and who had an odd style of dress.
But most of us accepted it all–and developed affection for Harold. We felt sorry for him having to suffer through the “Council Wars,” instigated by adversary aldermen Ed Vrdolyak (10) and Ed Burke (14), who are currently a jailbird and an indictee, respectively.
But the tides turned. As did the makeup of the City Council, and the wars ended. Harold’s second term had begun without the aggravation. Vrdolyak had even run against him in the general election and lost by a considerable margin. As did Jane Byrne in the 1987 primary, who he’d beaten four years before when she was the incumbent.
I’d written a story for the Chicago Reader about a group of women who called themselves “Women for Vrdolyak.” I went to one of their meetings to see why they were for Vrdolyak. He was serious about beating Washington and becoming mayor himself, these women thought.
When the story came out, I ended up being interviewed in-studio at WLS-Radio by a young guy named Roe Conn. He was just starting out–and he wasn’t THE Roe Conn yet. But he knew what to ask.
Over the Thanksgiving weekend of Harold’s death, my dad Lew, my husband Paul and my daughter Molly and I walked over to City Hall where Harold was Lying in State. We paid our respects and said a silent goodbye. There was something about it that was fulfilling, to have a last look at this guy who was going to go down in history.
It’s weird that when I walk past Harold Washington College or Harold Washington Library, I never feel much of anything–other than how I loved a creative writing course I once took at the former and how much I hate the inside layout and floor plan of the latter.
Respected and now retired Channel 5 newsman Peter Nolan’s 2011 book, Campaign! has been republished in honor of Harold’s 100th. And I’ve spent the last few days reading it–and reliving that brief but very eventful time in Chicago history. And in my own personal history.
At the end of the book, Nolan talks about driving into the City from Glenview over that same Thanksgiving weekend in 1987, to drop his son at the old bus station on Randolph Street, so he could ride the bus back to college. His son was impressed with how many people were waiting across the street at City Hall to get a glimpse the dead mayor, and he wanted to see what was going on. But his dad was worried if they got into the line he’d miss his bus. Luckily, a cop recognized Nolan and let them go right in.
One thing I never knew about Harold that I learned from Nolan’s book was that he was divorced. I always thought he was a confirmed bachelor. He was married for a time (no kids) to a woman named Ella (who remarried and had six). I only knew Harold to have a loyal girlfriend named Mary Ella Smith, coincidently, who died in 2016.
I also learned how deeply intertwined Harold was with his black peers, who also became leaders in Chicago. Not unlike the Irish, the Poles, the Italians and the Jews of the city who grew up together and made it.
The story of Harold Washington is also the story of the people who he beat in the 1983 primary, and Nolan tells their stories very well: Jane Byrne, a Richard J. Daley protege who beat Michael Bilandic in 1979; and Richie Daley, Richard J. Daley’s son, who also tried and failed in his first run for mayor.
Nolan also tells the very interesting story of Republican Bernie Epton, also in the race that year who almost won the general election, which would have been earth-shattering. Epton died of a heart attack a few weeks after Washington did, at the age of 66.
One story I know a lot about–because Jane’s first campaign was the brainchild of the late Paul McGrath, an exquisite journalist who I was married to for 20 years. He wrote the iconic stories of the cab scandals in Chicago when Jane was head of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s consumer unit. Paul, working closely with Jane Byrne and digging deeply as an investigative reporter, exposed the taxi cab scoundrels for who they were. He found Chicago medallions in New York. And Byrne looked like a reformer.
Bilandic fired her. (Ironically Bilandic’s cousin moved into our Michigan Avenue building in 1982–and had a baby boy a day before I had Molly. And we became very good friends….)
As Nolan points out, Jane liked journalists, especially Irish ones who knew what they were doing. And Paul did.
Paul is talked about in the book because he was appointed Chief of Staff (his official title was Deputy Mayor) after Jane won in 1979. And Nolan nails Paul’s experience in trying to figure out City Hall politics. from the other side. In cleaning house and trying to reform City Hall, and clear out the patronage, Paul became overwhelmed, and Jane sent him to Harvard School of Government to take a course.
When he came back, he decided to join Chicago Magazine as their political columnist. And that was that. (Actually there was a little more about year later but I’ve told that story in other posts.) Another Irish journalist replaced him, a guy who hit the news time and time again for being part of one scandal or another, which Nolan also chronicles very well.
Another guy that Nolan talks a lot about in Campaign! was one of the greatest cameramen of his time–Jimmy Stricklin–who worked with Nolan on many big stories.
I used to see Jimmy around during my years as a wannabe journalist and later when I became the real thing. He was one of the warmest and friendliest and helpful people I have ever known. Reading his name so many times in Nolan’s book brought back so many memories of his good will and good spirit and good advice. He always had time to make others feel good.
So I googled him to see what he was doing these days. I found his obituary. He died last year at the age of 88. He died of Covid. Fully vaccinated.
Jimmy’s death didn’t garner the attention that the Washington death did, of course. He was African American like Harold, though. And he made it pretty big in the news business, awarded many times.
But he didn’t die the day before Thanksgiving. And no one was counting butter sticks as they cooked for the big day.
Please Note, everyone is invited to this program at Cliff Dwellers at 200 S. Michigan, 22nd floor….
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 20: SOCIETY OF MIDLAND AUTHORS: RICK KOGAN IN CONVERSATION WITH PETER NOLAN ON MAYOR HAROLD WASHINGTON’S LEGACY 6 pm to 8 pm; free program….
Join us as acclaimed Chicago Tribune columnist and After Hours WGN Radio host Rick Kogan chats with retired veteran NBC5 political reporter Peter Nolan, author of Campaign! The Election that Rocked Chicago. Peter covered Washington extensively over the course of his long television journalism career. Campaign! transports you to that tumultuous, historic mayoral election. Join us as Rick and Peter trade memories and share their insights. This event is presented by the Society of Midland Authors
6:00 – 7:00 Cocktail Hour7:00 Program
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Bonnie McGrath is an award-winning long time Chicago journalist, columnist, blogger and lawyer who lives in the South Loop. You can contact her at email@example.com
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