‘Old school’ John H. Stroger Jr.
Saturday, January 19, 2008
These days, the term “old school” is used as one of denigration. Anyone who is “old school” is supposedly out of touch with the new ways of doing things, not comfortable with the new terminology, new technology and what passes for new civility.
John H. Stroger, Jr. was old school, and it is probably one of the best compliments that could be made about him. He was old school politics because he learned from the best: Ald. and Cong. William Dawson and Ralph Metcalfe. Stroger learned how to take care of his community first, and worry about the rest of the politicians later.
He learned how to focus on an issue – such as health care for the poor and underprivileged in Cook County – and not let go of it just because the political winds were blowing a different way. He was old school because when he shook your hand, or promised his help, that is exactly what you got - his hand, his help. He took heat because he backed young Richard M. Daley in the 1983 mayoral election instead of siding with Harold Washington.
When Washington defeated Daley in the primary election, Stroger threw all of his support to Washington. He didn’t think of backing away from his promise to the young Daley just because it was unpopular. A promise was a promise. How old school was that? He was also old school because when you pronounced yourself an enemy, he dealt with you, sometimes smiling, sometimes biting, sometimes just ignoring you completely.
He didn’t suffer fools, and his opponents on the County Board often felt his wrath. John Stroger’s death Friday, nearly two years after suffering a debilitating stroke, leaves a large whole in the Black political body in Cook County. While Harold Washington is regarded as the heart of that body, Stroger may have been the soul. The journey from son of former slaves in Helena, Ark. to first Black elected President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners was never something that Stroger looked for, though he knew that Chicago was a great breeding ground for Black politicians, and a hotbed of Black political activity and power.
He came to town and quickly rolled up his sleeves and got involved in the Black political life. John Stroger served as Cook County Commissioner from 1970-2006, and as County Board President from 1994-2006. He suffered a stroke the week before he won a primary race in his re-election bid for president in March 2006, and formally resigned from that office later that summer. During his service as commissioner, President Stroger chaired every major board committee, including Health & Hospitals, Building & Zoning, and Finance.
He also served as president of the National Association of Counties, a fitting role since Cook County has the largest Black population of any county in the United States. Aside from making history in his board presidency, Stroger is best remembered for leading the fight to build the hospital that now bears his name. It is a testament to Stroger’s commitment to taking care of his constituents, and not regarding the first, or second, or even the 50th “NO,” as the final word. He also oversaw the county’s acquisition of Provident Hospital. The entire Chicago community mourns the passing of one of its political and community giants.
We are all just a bit diminished by his passing, because his old school style is going to be missed in an era where politics is a blood sport and blue and red states have replaced red, white and blue states. But we have been so enriched by his time with us, because he was yet another reminder of what is possible, when hope meets hard work.