By Ben Joravsky
For almost 30 years Ed Kelly has ruled the 47th Ward just the way the old Mayor Daley wanted him to–with a big heart and an iron fist.
As the Democratic committeeman, he sponsored baseball and basketball leagues for kids and bingo games for seniors. He distributed garbage cans to constituents and city jobs to supplicants. Come election day he dispatched his precinct workers to harvest the payback of a big Democratic vote.
But bit by bit over the years his power has faded until now the unthinkable is happening: Lisa Madigan, the daughter of house speaker Michael Madigan, is running for state senator against Bruce Farley, Kelly’s handpicked incumbent.
The sheer gall of one Democratic chieftain allowing his daughter to invade another’s turf is compounded by the fact that young Madigan might win. Does this mean that Kelly, the personification of the great Daley machine, is finally finished? “Nope,” Kelly declares. “Not by a long shot. Don’t write me off–we still have a lot of fight left.”
To understand Kelly’s predicament, one must realize he emerged from a time and place foreign to or forgotten by many voters. He was raised in the old Italian neighborhood around Halsted and Division that was cleared to make way for Cabrini-Green. A sensational teenage basketball and baseball player, Kelly graduated from Saint Philip’s High School in 1942 and went on to the marines, where he flew several hundred missions as a gunner on a dive-bomber in the south Pacific (he still wears the marine emblem on his lapel).
After the war he played basketball for Oshkosh in the fledgling NBA; he hurt his knee and returned to Chicago to work as a physical education instructor with the Park District. “I had a gift for coaching and organizing,” he says. “I went to Pottawattomie Park [in Rogers Park] and they had 14 teams. When I left they had 78. You get out the news, you call on the parents, you set up tryouts, you set up a league. Every kid plays, equal minutes for all–you try to make sure every kid gets to touch the ball. Who knows? You may discover that the kid everyone else overlooked, the shy kid who never says a word, has a hidden talent.”
Throughout the 50s and 60s he worked his way up the Park District hierarchy; in 1973 Daley asked him to be the general superintendent. “I changed my life for Mayor Daley,” says Kelly. “I had a chance to be president of the [NBA’s] Milwaukee Bucks. The owner, Wes Pavalon, a kid I coached at Green Briar Park, said, ‘Eddie, I want you to be president.’ My wife Marilyn and I were ready to move. Then Richard J. Daley calls me to his office and says he wants me to run for ward committeeman in the 47th. He says I’ve been living there my whole adult life and it’s time to take what had been a Republican ward and make it Democrat. I didn’t say anything about the Bucks and neither did he. For all I know he didn’t know anything about it–though I later found out from someone that he did. I wanted to tell him no, but what could I say? When Mayor Daley asked you to do something, you didn’t say no.”
Within a few years he had turned the 47th Ward (which roughly runs from Addison to Foster and from Ashland to the Chicago River) into one of the organization’s strongest operations, with two to three party workers (many of them Park District employees) in every precinct. In 1975 he ran Gene Schulter, a baby-faced clerk from the assessor’s office, against the incumbent alderman, John Hoellen, an outspoken Republican critic of Daley and his machine. To this day Hoellen (now 83) says Kelly used strong-arm tactics, sabotaging his tenure by appointing a Streets and Sanitation superintendent who ignored his pleas for service. Unswayed, the voters swept Schulter into office, where he’s been ever since.
Kelly showered services on his ward–a new field house at Welles Park, a swimming pool for Chase. In those days it seemed no one had a bad word to say about Kelly. He had hundreds of influential friends, a daunting cast of sports, political, and media celebrities ranging from Muhammad Ali to Jimmy Carter, whose autographed photos line Kelly’s office walls. In his ward, his endorsement made the difference between winning and losing. Certainly no opposing candidate could outspend him, as his treasure chest was fortified by annual fund-raisers.
As parks superintendent, however, he drew mixed reviews. His allies cite the hundreds of programs he built all over the city, particularly in boxing and basketball. His detractors contend that he shortchanged parks in black and Hispanic areas to concentrate spending on a few favorite north-side parks.
In 1982 several community groups sued the Park District, alleging discrimination in the dispersal of money and programs. The case, still a matter of consternation to Kelly, eventually led to a pledge by the district to spend more money in black wards. Nevertheless, Kelly feels he was vindicated. “We proved that we had spent more money in black wards than the plaintiffs charged,” he says. “The judge in the case said I never discriminated. Do you think a man who discriminates could have been such a good friend of Muhammad Ali? I love him and he loves me. Look, I have his pictures all over my wall. I can go to any park in any black neighborhood in the city and a dozen people will come up and say, ‘Ed Kelly, thank you for what you’ve done.'”
In 1983 mayoral candidate Harold Washington vowed to oust Kelly from the Park District. When Washington won the Democratic primary, Kelly supported Bernie Epton, the Republican. His fight against Washington raged for over four years, as Kelly risked whatever goodwill he had in the black community by joining the anti-Washington coalition of northwest- and southwest-side white politicians. Once Washington realized he couldn’t order Kelly from the parks he tried to buy out his contract. Kelly refused the offer. So Washington tried to bypass him by naming Jesse Madison to a newly created position of executive director, with authority that was supposed to supersede Kelly’s. But when Madison reported to work he found he couldn’t enter his office because the locks had been changed by employees loyal to Kelly.
There are still some activists who won’t forgive Kelly for his recalcitrance toward the city’s only elected black mayor. Kelly says he had no choice. “Harold never came to the Park District to talk. He lumped me in with the other two Eddies, Vrdolyak and Burke. And he knew better. We had mutual friends who told him I was no hater. He knew I was the one who put the DuSable Museum in Washington Park. Had he come to me I would have supported him. But Harold always had to be the toughest cat in the street. He said he was going to get me out of there and that was that, the gloves were off. I’m like Harold, another old fighter. I’m not about to back down. Ironically, Harold and I might have made up. He came to a slate-making session and gave a terrific talk and said, ‘Ed, give me call, let’s get together.’ The next week he died, so who’s to say what might have been.”
In 1987 Kelly retired from the Park District, and his power diminished as he lost his main source of patronage. Gradually his ward started to change. More Hispanics and Asians moved in, as well as whites more liberal than Kelly. His greatest foe may be time. As his name fades from the papers people simply forget. He still sponsors the basketball leagues at Chase and Welles parks, but many of the parents in the stands haven’t a clue as to the legacy of the name emblazoned on their children’s T-shirts.
A few months back Schulter opened his own office, in part to establish his own identity (although the two say they remain allies). In 1996 Kelly’s candidate for state rep, Luke Howe, lost to Larry McKeon. Later that year, Bruce Farley, who shares a ward office with Kelly, was indicted in a ghost-payrolling scheme (his trial is scheduled to begin a couple of weeks before next month’s primary). Lisa Madigan declared her candidacy even though Farley vowed to stay in the race.
“I went to Mr. Kelly before I announced,” she says. “He was open and friendly but he has a loyalty to Bruce Farley. I think he understands that my running has nothing to do with my father. It was my decision. I’m not running against Mr. Kelly. I’m not even that familiar with his role in Council Wars–I was out of town and in college for most of those years.”
Kelly won’t conceal his disappointment over Madigan’s candidacy. “The story I got from Mike is, ‘I don’t control her–she decided to run on her own,'” says Kelly. “I know people say, ‘Forget Farley, he’s through.’ Well, I believe in loyalty, and I’m remaining loyal to Bruce Farley. Charges and indictments are not necessarily convictions. We still live in the United States, where a man’s presumed to be innocent. I still think he can win. Our organization’s still strong. People say, ‘Oh, Kelly’s guy lost to McKeon.’ Well, they only beat Luke Howe by putting two other Irishmen in the race to take away from our vote–don’t think I didn’t notice that.”
And if Farley loses?
“If he loses I’ll still be here. I’m not going away. I’ll still support the baseball and basketball teams; I’ll still have bingo for the seniors. I look around and see all the things I’ve done for this ward–the field house at Welles Park, the Sulzer Library. Some of the new people in the ward may not know who I am. But I’ll meet them. Listen, don’t feel sorry for me. I’ve done some things. I’ve had a great life, and it’s not over yet.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Sandy Bertog.