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Daley remembers Stroger as 'groundbreaking leader'

Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Chicago Tribune
by Gary Washburn

Mayor Richard Daley's voice faltered Wednesday when he eulogized former Cook County President John H. Stroger, whom he called "a groundbreaking leader" and "one of the most decent people I have ever known in politics."

During a memorial service that preceded the funeral mass, Gov. Rod Blagojevich, Mayor Richard Daley, Sen. Dick Durbin and Rev. Jesse Jackson were among the speakers at the South Side St. Felicitas Catholic Church who lauded Stroger for a life well-lived and for his concern for others.

Jackson called Stroger "a gentle, quiet determined giant" who overcame odds in his rise to power and then tended to people who needed help, including Cook County's poor. It was Stroger who built the new and modern county hospital that now bears his name, Jackson said.

Stroger, 78, died Friday morning. He suffered a stroke a week before the March 2006 primary. His son, Todd, then an alderman, replaced him on the ballot and won the election. The elder Stroger's powerful political career spanned more than three decades.

After the funeral ended at about 1:45 p.m., Stroger was to be buried at St. Mary Cemetery, Evergreen Park.

Earlier, long lines of mourners filed down the center aisle of the church , paying their final respects to Stroger before taking their seats for his funeral service.

Political leaders, including Secretary of State Jesse White, and numerous city and county officials were in attendance.

"He could disagree without being disagreeable—John Stroger was somebody you liked whether you agreed with him or disagreed with him," said County Commissioner Forrest Claypool before entering the church. "He was a gentleman. I think we are going to miss him. That type of civility in politics is missing too often."

On Tuesday, as a steady stream of mourners paid their respects to Stroger, many—even those who had never met him—described him as something more than a politician: a leader and a friend.

Stroger, the county's first African-American board president, started in the Democratic Party as an assistant precinct captain and eventually rose to become a powerful ward boss.

"He was like family to me," said Annie Hightower, 46, who served Stroger his breakfast—oatmeal, a bran muffin, decaf coffee and a small glass of orange juice—for more than 10 years in the now-shuttered West Egg Cafe at the Daley Center.

"If I saw him trying to sneak bacon, I'd take it away from him," she said, smiling.

Many remembered Stroger's concern for individuals, and specifically for the people of his community.

"I just think he was a great man for always thinking of the people, and especially for opening Stroger Hospital to people that don't have insurance and can't afford to pay," said Winnie Pryce, 51, who added that she relied on the county hospital when she lost her job and had no insurance.

"They gave me free medical coverage for a year. That's because of him," she said.

Stranger or friend, most mourners lingered in the sanctuary, pausing to remember Stroger's small favors and acts of kindness.

Charita Germany, 60, a retired postal worker, and her husband, Grover, 61, a retired CTA employee, said they once met Stroger at a function with CTA workers. They were impressed by how the politician never forgot a face.

"He would call to us if he saw us on the street and yell, 'Hey, Germany!' " said Charita Germany.

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