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Chicago's Biggest Shoulders

Published: 5/15/2012
I'm not the last of the old bosses. I'm the first of the new leaders. –Richard J. Daley

Ah, Chicago. Were I living in New York or L.A., I'd have been dead meat long ago. –Studs Terkel

Two great Chicagoans would have celebrated birthdays this week. Richard J. Daley, the city's mayor for 21 years and widely considered the "last of the big city bosses," was born on May 15, 1902. And Studs Terkel, the author and historian who brought Chicago to the world, was born ten years and one day later on May 16, 1912.

Both men had great influence on Chicago and, especially, on the public perception of the city. To honor their birthdays, we're looking at how these two men lived in – and shaped – the City of Big Shoulders.

Richard J. Daley, Mayor of Chicago, tells delegates that he's glad to have the Democratic National Convention in his city at the opening session on Aug. 26, 1968. (AP Photo/stf)In this May 15, 2007 file photo, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Studs Terkel is seen during an interview at his home in Chicago. AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast, File)

The Democratic Party is the party that opened its arms. We opened them to every nationality, every creed. We opened them to the immigrants. The Democratic Party is the party of the people. –Daley

In a democratic society, you're supposed to be an activist; that is, you participate. –Terkel

Chicago is a city of immigrants, and the backgrounds of Daley and Terkel reflect that. Daley grew up an only child in a working-class Irish Catholic family on the city's South Side – his "Back of the Yards" neighborhood was noted both for its proximity to Chicago's famous stockyards and for being the seat of power for the city's strong Democratic machine. Terkel, in contrast, came from a Russian Jewish family, the youngest of three boys. His parents ran a boarding house in the North Side’s artsy "Bughouse Square," an area known for its free thinkers, poets and radicals.

It's not so surprising, then, that Daley entered politics and Terkel became a writer.

[O]nce you become active in something, something happens to you. You get excited and suddenly you realize you count. –Terkel

We all like to hear a man speak out on his convictions and principles. But at the same time, you must understand that when you're running on a ticket, you're running with a team. –Daley

Though they had different leanings, Daley and Terkel both went to law school – Daley at DePaul, working in the stockyards to pay for school; Terkel at the prestigious University of Chicago – and they earned their JD degrees just one year apart. The practice of law wasn't in either man's future, though – Daley practiced briefly before moving to politics, winning election to the Illinois House of Representatives just three years after graduation. And Terkel never practiced, opting instead to become a hotel concierge and actor before finding his way to radio, television and writing.

My whole life has been an accretion of accidents. I went to University of Chicago law school to become Clarence Darrow. I was a streetcar student. There was a long stopover in what was known as Brownsville -- the black community. Out of these stores you'd hear music and could buy records. Louie Armstrong's West End Blues with Earl Hines at the piano. What I learned from law school was Louie, Duke and Memphis Minnie. That's what led me to the radio. –Terkel

Television and radio do a wonderful job in focusing attention on the problems of our society. –Daley

By 1952, Terkel had begun to host The Studs Terkel Program on WFMT, a radio staple that continued until 1997, in which he interviewed a wide variety of guests. The show gave him plenty of opportunities to comment on Chicago's goings-on, not the least of which was politics. For half the radio show's existence – from 1955 to 1976 – Daley was mayor of Chicago, a massively powerful leader who ran the city's famous (and sometimes corrupt) Democratic machine.

Chicago is not the most corrupt American city. It's the most theatrically corrupt. –Terkel

Power is dangerous unless you have humility. –Daley

Even the Lord had skeptical members of His party. –Daley

Daley died at age 74 while serving his sixth term as mayor, a longevity record for the city's mayors that would only be broken by his own son, Richard M. Daley, decades later. Terkel outlived Daley by decades, continuing to write acclaimed books well into his 90s before dying at age 96. The legacies they leave are as different as their backgrounds, yet they too dovetail.

Daley is remembered as a shaper of the city. He successfully kept Chicago from spiraling into the decline that other "rust belt" industrial cities suffered – Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo didn't emerge from the era as gracefully as Chicago did. Terkel, on the other hand, was a chronicler of the city, showing the rest of the world what the big bosses like Daley were doing there. While they didn't work together, their lives were complimentary – each, without the other, would have been a little less.

Without both men, Chicago, too, would have been a little less.

They have vilified me, they have crucified me; yes, they have even criticized me. –Daley

What is inherently wrong with the word 'politician' if the fellow has devoted his life to holding public office and trying to do something for his people? –Daley

I want, of course, peace, grace, and beauty. How do you do that? You work for it. –Terkel

Written by Linnea Crowther

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