America’s Mayor Daley

Mayor Daley. At the end of 22 years on the job.

It’s a story is about a person who was a perfect fit for the job. Not a perfect mayor. Not a perfect man. Not in this rusted steel bridge rising city.

Perfect fit means you were born to do the job.

Cheer him. Damn him. Decide you don’t care. The adoration or the damning isn’t even the point. It’s the fit between the between the person and the job that always took center stage.

That and his love for the place. Really loving where you live.

Look beyond Chicago. Stay with the idea of the perfect fit. What if “perfect fit’ became the lens through which we viewed any leader?

A touchstone for what really meant to be Mayor?

What if “perfect fit” was the real legacy of Richard M Daley?

This rough hewn fire plug of energy, who has lectured at Harvard and in Beijing, stood as the Dean of America’s Mayors.

What did I learn from watching him?

That “Fit” is what connects the soul to the work.

Start with Mayor Daley’s voice. High pitched. Staccato bursts of red faced, steaming raw energy. Loud.

You got to be loud here. In the teak paneled boardrooms where the big decisions are made, you can speak softly. But not when you are speaking to the city. Not on nightly jousts with the press, knowing full well that for a drama to come alive there must be conflict.

Not when the tired, beaten down Chicagoan is just getting home from work or trying to find work, and Mayor Daley is on TV being outraged. His rant with a signature phrase of “It’s like anything else.”

Like some wound up Uncle yelling in the kitchen. Your Dad might be watching the White Sox game in the living room, but Uncle Rich was yelling in the kitchen. And somehow Uncle Rich’s yelling made the day bearable.

Course it’s not just about talking. There was that time he decided to rip up an airport. In the dead of night. Bulldozers rumbling in military formation towards what once was called Meigs Field. Slashing the concrete runways where rich guys once landed their planes. And now that airport is a park. A beautiful lakeside park.

Because the Mayor wanted it that way.

There is horror at that kind of power. But there is also a park.

And in the quiet, just before going up to bed moments of a man and a woman standing at the front window of their red brick bungalow on the Northwest Side of the city, the woman says, “How about that Mayor Daley?” And the man softly chuckles and says, “You know, we haven’t been downtown lately. Maybe we should go Saturday?”

In those quiet moments was the work of a man who was a perfect fit for his job.

That same man and woman from the bungalow hop on an elevated train that Saturday.

And as they wind their way towards the city, gliding over the rooftops of the homes where people just do the best they can to live their lives, they are surrounded by the trees! Everywhere you look there are trees. Even on the roof of City Hall, a giant garden. And as the boulevards come into sight they see flowers. Running down the middle of the boulevards there are flowers. They get off their Brown Line train, walk downstairs to the street and then east to Millennium Park, and this island of collective, peace just rises up and grabs any weary heart who wanders in and its as if the park had a voice that says, “Here. Right here. There is beauty. And you can have some too.”

Once Millennium Park was a rail road yard. Now it’s an Urban Park to rival any in the world.

Once Chicago was a study in grey toned, smoky belching steam tunnel, cut you now and cut you bad. Now there are flowers and trees. Not enough. Or in all the needed places. But there are flowers where their once were none.

All that on Mayor Daley’s watch.

Of course the death spiral income disparity rampant across the country isn’t any different here than anywhere else.

And with struggle comes sorrow. There are still the ancient, unchangeable winds of deeply rooted sorrow.

But he communicates sorrow in the midst of the everyday business of doing his job.

Here’s what it looks like.

He walks through crowds every day of his working life. He roams the city in his car looking for pot holes, abandoned buildings, tell tale signs of drug dealing and violence, he writes down the problems and the addresses, barks out orders on the phone to get stuff fixed.

And when he encounters the deeper sorrows that come in the midst of 8 million people together, his wild Irish heart will remember out loud his two year old son Kevin, passed away so very many years ago. The man has known sorrow. So we share that with him.

In Mike Royko’s classic book on Mayor Daley’s father, “Boss” one finds a master writer of writers doing the work of peeling back easy labels of “corruption.” Not to romanticize, slam or cast any judgment—good or bad. But to tell the full story.

And telling the full story will be harder for whoever writes “Son of Boss.” Because the sweet temptation of the instantaneous judgment and label is now such succulent fruit.

Was there looking the other way? Taking care of friends?

Is there a club? And can that couple walking through Millennium Park be members?

With all those questions, there is also a whole way of life. A spaghetti bowl of highways carrying politics, business, money, power, heritage and a troubling strain of the powerful preying on the weak now moving on to the next generation. There is more to it that just this man out front. The one everybody looks at. The man in charge.

There is a way of life.

And finally there is Maggie.

There is grace personified in his wife Maggie. Already quadrupling the life expectancy of one with her kind of cancer. Grounding The Mayor like no king or prince ever could. Maggie in a billion tiny moments over the years sharing that grace with her neighbors here, on her block and around the world. Moments like:

I’m in the second floor lobby of The Goodman Theater. Deserted except for the bartenders. And the elegant blonde woman standing alone at the elevator. The second act has started. I go to wait for the elevator with her. She smiles. I’m amazed that there is no security around the First Lady of Chicago Maggie Daley. I almost feel as if I should volunteer to walk her back to her seat. But in her smiling eyes an iron fisted strength making clear that this is a woman who can take care of herself. I say, “Great show!”

She says, “Yes. The acting is exceptional.”

“My father in law is playing the lead,” I say, trying to contain my boasting.

Her smile shows me she sees my boast. And understands my pride.

“Oh my,” she says. “He is superb. When he’s on stage, no one looks anywhere else.”

“He’s always that good!” I say,

She laughs. Nods. Walks off to her seat and me to mine.

So as Mayor Daley closes this chapter of his story, I remember the time Maggie Daley said about my father in law “When he’s on stage, no one looks anywhere else.”

And I think, pretty good description of Mayor Daley too.

2 Responses to “America’s Mayor Daley”

  1. Paul Haider Says:

    Yes, I will miss those Rich “Da Mayor” Daley press conferences and whenever he got flustered or annoyed with the reporters; John Kass will never have as much fun with Rahm. Of course, we can only hope that Rahm will clean out the barn known as City Hall with all of its corrosive cronyism and nefarious nepotism. Out with the Irish and in with the Jewish! Out with the Dylan fan and in with the Springsteen fan! Out with the Sox fan and in with the Cubs fan! Change is a good thing.
    Paul Haider, Chicago
    P.S. I never doubted that Daley loves our city too.

  2. Ted Schneider Says:


    I think “perfect fit” definitely sums up Daley. If there was ever a man who fit the job, it is indeed him. He definitely cared about the people and the city itself – outraged at issues that bothered him, not afraid to speak his mind when he had an opinion or view to share or a funny comment. Rahm will have big shoes to fill and will have to figure out how he fits. On a side note, think of how well run the world would be if people, in general, “fit” their jobs as well as Daley did and seemed to enjoy what they did as much as he did.

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