|Tiffany dome inside the Chicago Cultural Center|
Met my wife at the Cultural Center Friday after work, to rendezvous before dinner and a show. I got there first, and poked around a bit—how can you not?—and was reminded, yet again, what a beautiful slice of 19th century opulence the place is.
When she showed up I resisted, manfully, telling her, yet again, how Richard J. Daley's wife saved the place, the only time she ever contradicted him in public, basically saying "The hell you will" after he announced it would be torn down and replaced with one of those godawful slabs of brutalism they were throwing up in the early 1970s.
She was the mother of seven children, and she raised them right.
That Eleanor Daley, whom everybody called "Sis," was also the wife of one Chicago mayor, Richard J. Daley, and the mother of another, Richard M. Daley, might be more important to the history books.
But for Mrs. Daley, who died Sunday evening at the age of 95, family always came first, and the city loved her for it. She created the pedestal of solid home life that allowed her husband--and then her son, who lived at home until he was 27 years old--to reach great political success.
"We cannot understand Daley unless we understand the love story, simple and old-fashioned, at the heart of his life," Eugene Kennedy wrote in his biography of the late mayor. "Eleanor Daley was not a person who complemented Richard Daley; she matched him almost exactly in conviction, devotion and toughness."
In recent years, she remained physically active, going to museums and outings, and was the beloved matriarch of the expanding Daley clan, particularly her 20 grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
"When I talk to my kids, the first question is always, 'What's up with Grandma?" said son William Daley, who was then the U.S. secretary of commerce, at Mrs. Daley's 90th birthday in 1997. "It's amazing the way the younger kids are attracted to her. They seem to get such a big kick out of her and her out of them. She's been the rock of our family."
Mrs. Daley was in the public eye for more than 40 years without a breath of scandal or even criticism. She was admired even by many of the Daley clan's most fervent political rivals. Mayor Harold Washington once called her "a wonderful person who is part of our history."
In the 13 years between the time her husband died and when her son took office, four mayoral administrations kept the police guard outside her famed Bridgeport bungalow, long after real concerns for her safety had passed, almost as a symbol of the city watching out for its respected collective mother.
This is not to say she couldn't be outspoken. The press wanted to know her opinion about everything, and, on rare occasions, she gave it. Asked about abortion in 1971, Mrs. Daley, like her husband a devout Roman Catholic, said: "I would rather have a baby on my lap than on my conscience."
She also would sally to the defense of her husband when he was under attack, particularly in later years.
"I'm telling it to you straight--there was no setback of any kind," she said to a reporter in 1972, after her husband's faction was ousted from the Democratic National Convention--perhaps the most humiliating defeat of his career--and Daley was said to be in seclusion at their Michigan vacation home. "He never did. How can you be in seclusion with seven children and your in-laws?"
Eleanor Guilfoyle, the seventh of 10 children of an insurance agent and his wife, was born at 29th and Throop in Bridgeport on March 4, 1907. She was given the nickname "Sis" at an early age by her siblings, who had difficulty pronouncing her given name.
She graduated from St. Mary High School and never attended college, though St. Xavier College awarded her an honorary degree in 1963.
It was in Bridgeport that brown-eyed Eleanor met Richard J. Daley at a Sunday afternoon baseball game in Mark White Square in 1926. Her brother Lloyd, an old friend of Daley's, made the introduction. The future mayor squired her to a dance at St. Bridget's Hall that evening.
The two courted for a decade, going to picnics and church socials. The future Mrs. Daley continued to live at home, working as a secretary at the Martin-Senour Paint Co. during the day and caring for her ailing mother at night. Meanwhile, Richard Daley was slowly earning his law degree, taking night classes for 11 years at DePaul University.
"Daley had this great romance with Sis," the late Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz once said.
"He was my first and only love," Mrs. Daley later said of her husband, the only man she ever dated.
After Daley opened his law practice, the two finally married, on June 23, 1936, in St. Bridget's Church in Bridgeport. Mrs. Daley took a cool view toward her husband's 1955 bid for mayor.
"I have never taken much interest in politics," she told the Chicago Sun-Times before the election. "I suppose if Dick is elected, I will have to be more active. Of course, I would be happy for him."
Still, she had found a perfect match in Richard Daley, who, if more interested in politics than she, nevertheless shared her devotion to family. At exactly 10:15 the night of his first inauguration in 1955, the new mayor turned to Mrs. Daley and said, "Mom, we've got to get the youngsters to bed." And with that, the Daley family left the celebration.
"My mother told me there was never a single day in her life that my father didn't tell her that he loved her," said their daughter Patricia. "There was never a day he didn't say, 'I love you, Sis.' "
The Daleys lived first in an apartment at 3333 S. Union and then moved to a building, since torn down, at the northeast corner of 35th and Emerald. On Nov. 1, 1939, they moved into a red-brick bungalow, built to Daley's specifications, at 3536 S. Lowe in Bridgeport.
There, in a house usually off-limits to reporters and most politicians, they raised their seven children: Richard, William, John, Michael, Patricia, Eleanor and Mary Carol. And there Mrs. Daley continued to live for the decades after Richard J. Daley died.
When her husband became mayor, Mrs. Daley said, a reporter told her she would have to turn her children over to someone's care while she attended social functions as Chicago's first lady.
"Dick and I sat down then," she said. "And we discussed whether I would have to attend all the social functions. 'No,' he said. 'It's up to you to decide if you want to attend.' And I said, 'Fine.' I attended many functions. But when my children were small, I couldn't get on that noon luncheon circuit. I had children coming home at noon, and then they'd come home at 3 o'clock, after school."
The Daleys made another important decision.
"We decided," said Mrs. Daley, "that any social functions with politicians, or visitors coming to the city--[the mayor] would entertain them downtown. You wouldn't open up your home to have it a showcase or an open house, people dropping in at all hours. This was a home for our family."
If she ever yearned for the limelight, for a career beyond her family, she never admitted it publicly.
"For a mayor's wife, Sis Daley is a rare species," the Chicago American's Lois Baur declared in 1965. "She is not a joiner, a politician or a social butterfly. She is a wife, a mother, a homemaker, and, you suspect as you observe her quiet manner and lovely brown eyes, sometimes the soothing leveler to Hizzoner after a hard day at City Hall."
One social occasion Mrs. Daley did take pride in was the brief visit of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip to Chicago in 1959. She made sure her children were presented to the queen during her 14-hour sojourn here, and afterward kept an oil painting of the Daleys' encounter with royalty above the mantle in their home. She also attended John F. Kennedy's inaugural and later met the president.
Mrs. Daley earned a reputation of being fiercely loyal to her husband and bristled at any news item the least bit derogatory. One of her pet peeves during his early days as mayor was the way commentators described him as "fat."
"He's not fat. He photographs much larger than he really is," she told a reporter in 1960.
She was also affected when her husband's policies led to protest in front of their bungalow, such as the civil rights picketing of the Daley home in 1965. In 1966, Mayor Daley delayed announcing his candidacy for re-election citing concerns, perhaps genuine, for his wife's health.
The biggest stir involving Mrs. Daley took place in 1971 when, shopping at the National food store near her home, she noticed a display of paperback copies of Boss, the highly-critical biography of her husband written by Mike Royko, then a columnist with the Chicago Daily News.
She considered the book "trash" and "shallow, secondhand hogwash" and wasn't about to let it be sold in her local grocery store. She turned a cardboard sign promoting the book face down and arranged all the books so their covers did not show.
Then, Mrs. Daley sought out the store manager and said that if the book wasn't removed from the store, she would take her business elsewhere. The next day, the chain pulled the book from all of its 200 stores. The ban became national news--fueled by a gleeful Royko--and the company later rescinded it.
Mrs. Daley made local headlines again in February 1972 when she appealed for the restoration of the 83-year-old main library building just days after her husband had announced that he favored tearing it down and building a new library on the site. The mayor eventually relented, announcing that the library building--at Randolph and Michigan--would be restored and used as a cultural center.
On Dec. 20, 1976, the last day of her husband's life, Mrs. Daley accompanied him to the annual mayor's Christmas breakfast with city department heads at the Bismarck Hotel. The department chiefs had kicked in to send the Daleys on a trip to Ireland, land of their ancestors. The couple, married 40 years, spent most of the event deep in conversation with each other, "like young lovers," a waiter recalled.
That afternoon, at his doctor's office, Daley collapsed and died. Mrs. Daley rushed to the office with several of her children. Informed that her husband had died, Mrs. Daley said: "Now we all have to kneel down and thank God for having this great man for 40 years," and led the children in prayer.
For the next two years, Mrs. Daley spent most of her time with her family and was rarely seen outside her Bridgeport home. But in 1979, when her son Richard ran for the office of Cook County state's attorney, she ventured out on the campaign trail. She attended political functions, shook hands all around and agreed to her first interviews in years.
She drew crowds of admirers wherever she appeared, and it became apparent she was a political asset. At President Jimmy Carter's request, she campaigned for him in his failed 1980 re-election bid.
After the campaign, Mrs. Daley said she was planning to write a book about her and her husband, using diaries and scrapbooks she had kept since 1955. It would recount their public and private lives, she said, and it would be "a love story."
She never wrote the book, however.
Mrs. Daley re-entered the spotlight when her eldest son was elected mayor in 1989. She was greeted at his first inauguration with "thunderous" applause, and appeared at a variety of political events.
In 2002, a teary-eyed Mayor Daley marveled at his mother's resilience, memory and indomitable spirit after a health scare that saw Mrs. Daley rushed to the hospital amid fears of a stroke.
"She always recalls; she's got 99 lives. I mean—it's amazing," he said.
Survivors include six of her seven children—her daughter, namesake and close companion Eleanor Rita Daley died early in 1998—as well as her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
— Originally published in the Sun-Times Feb. 17, 2003