Eugene Schulter has been alderman of the 47th Ward for nearly a quarter century and four and a half years ago became its undisputed boss. But long before the ward, which includes most of North Center and Lincoln Square, was taken over by a Mayor Daley loyalist and one of the most cautious cats in the City Council it had a much different kind of politician at its helm—a fiery Republican who railed against Machine politics and gave the first Mayor Daley fits. His name was John J. Hoellen Jr. and he belonged to a political species that’s almost extinct now: good government Republicans.
Imagine that. There’s still one Republican in the City Council—Alderman Brian Doherty of the 41st Ward, on the far northwest side. But he’s hardly a reformer. His chief accomplishment lies in ensuring that the City Council is a bipartisan rubber stamp.
Hoellen, on the other hand, was a two-fisted scrapper who loved a fight almost as much as he loved reporters, for whom he almost always had a spicy quote. He was the son of 47th Ward alderman and Republican committeeman John Hoellen Sr., who ran a shoe store at 1938 W. Irving Park, in the middle of what was for generations one of the biggest German enclaves in the city. The younger Hoellen lived in the area his whole life, eventually dying in the same house at 1842 W. Larchmont, just south of Irving Park and Wolcott, where he’d grown up.
When his father died in 1936, Hoellen Jr. was a 22-year-old law school student at Northwestern. It wasn’t until 1947, after stints in the military and the Illinois attorney general’s office, that he ran to win his father’s old aldermanic seat from the new incumbent, Frank O. Hilburn. You could say his political career began with a bang, or a shotgun blast. According to a Tribune account at the time, hours after Hoellen filed to run for the office, a “mysterious” man in an overcoat tried to shoot him outside his home. He avoided injury when a button on his coat “took the force of the charge,” police told reporters. No one was ever picked up for the shooting.
That was eight years before Richard J. Daley was elected, when the current mayor was only five years old. But then as now the city was a cesspool of corruption and inside deals. In his aldermanic campaign, Hoellen vowed to clean it all up. Voters apparently decided to let him try.
Once in office, Hoellen became a City Council fixture, known for fiery speeches in which he denounced waste, corruption, and inefficiencies with a red face and trembling voice. He tag-teamed with the occasional liberal Democrat—most notably the legendary independent alderman Leon Despres—to vote against tax hikes and call for investigations into hiring scandals and questionable land deals. He was one of three aldermen who in 1961 dared to vote against the urban renewal plan that cleared Little Italy from the path of the oncoming University of Illinois at Chicago. And he obsessively pestered Daley to account for how he spent money that wasn’t reflected in the budget. In 1975, when Daley unilaterally proposed to rebuild Soldier Field—without seeking City Council approval—Hoellen thundered: “Who does Daley think he is? Julius Caesar?” Then he wisecracked: “He should at least check it out with the City Council. Although composed largely of trained seals, it should nevertheless be consulted.”
One of his most prescient political stances—and lowest rhetorical points—came in 1965, when he voted against the construction of several public housing high-rises in different parts of the south side. His argument, which turned out to be right, was that they would turn into vertical slums. But he created a firestorm when he bellowed in the midst of the debate: “This is primarily Negro housing. Everybody knows the Negro loves the good soil. He likes the feel of dirt and the smell of trees.”
Council debates aren’t what they used to be. Next, as the Tribune reported, “Alderman Claude W.B. Holman (4th), a Negro, interrupted him to shout: ‘You are maligning the whole Negro race. To say they love the dirt is an insult to me and all the Negroes. I’m just as clean as you are.'” Hoellen tried to protest that he was looking out for recent African-American migrants from the south, but Holman called him a bigot. Those high-rises got built.
Occasionally, Hoellen came off as a little goofy, at least by today’s standards. In 1965 he led the charge to have James Baldwin’s novel Another Country removed from a Wright College reading list on the grounds that its interracial and homosexual themes were “filthy.” On that issue, at least, most of the aldermen joined him. Two years later he assailed the Picasso statue outside of what’s now known as the Daley Center, calling it a “monstrosity” and a “heroic monument to some dead dodo” that should be replaced by a stature of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks.
Hoellen thirsted for higher office, but he never made it out of the council. He ran for mayor, county clerk, and Congress (three times), losing every race. “I’m a politician,” he told reporters. “When the bugle calls, I come running.”
As alderman, however, he was virtually unbeatable—though Daley tried. In 1959, the mayor got 1,000 people to pay $25 each for a fund-raiser for George Wells, his handpicked challenger to Hoellen. Hoellen still prevailed, as he did in 1963, 1967, and 1971.
In 1968 Daley anointed Ed Kelly, soon to be named general superintendent of the Park District, as the ward’s Democratic committeeman, the party’s ward boss. In those days the job consisted of building and marshaling a patronage army that could deliver the vote on Election Day—and the better the results, the more jobs and power were granted from the mayor. Kelly was just what Daley was looking for. He handed out Park District jobs and chipped away at Hoellen’s base, and by 1975 he had enough campaign workers to oust this gadfly once and for all. All he needed was a candidate.
“The ward was largely German in those days and all those German voters ever knew was Hoellen,” recalls Kelly, who’s now retired and still lives in the ward. “Hoellen, Hoellen—boy, I had fun with Hoellen. A tough guy, though—very tough. What a character. I told the mayor—the first Mayor Daley—’Mr. Mayor, don’t you worry, we’re going to take care of Mr. Hoellen.’ I don’t think the mayor really believed me that it could be done.”
Kelly drafted Schulter, then a 27-year-old aide in the county assessor’s office, to run against Hoellen for alderman. “We needed a German name to run against Hoellen and Schulter is a German name,” says Kelly. “I bought up all the billboards in the area. Put Schulter’s name all over the ward. People didn’t know Schulter’s name when the election started. They did at the end.”
Schulter remembers things a little differently. As he recalls it, he wasn’t exactly a creation of Kelly’s organization. “Yes, I had the Democratic Party’s support, but I had a lot of support in the area,” he says. “I was a community activist.”
It didn’t help that Hoellen was also running a kamikaze campaign as the Republican candidate for mayor. According to press coverage at the time, Kelly brought in as many as 200 patronage workers to knock on doors and get their supporters to the polls. They spread rumors that Hoellen wanted to bring low-income housing to the ward—a kiss-of-death accusation even though he said it wasn’t true. Overextended in each of his campaigns, Hoellen wound up getting clobbered in both.
On election night, the old warrior was surprisingly understated. “It’s hard to be Republican in Chicago,” he told reporters. He was out after seven terms—28 years.
In 1979, Governor James Thompson named Hoellen to the CTA board. Once again he made headlines, feeding reporters blunt, indignant quotes about CTA waste and inefficiency, until he stepped down in 1990. Nine years later he died, at age 84, in the house on Larchmont. “Every street corner has a little of my political blood on it,” he once said of his neighborhood, “since I have fought so long and hard here.”
The German character of the neighborhood has largely disappeared, Republicans are no more visible here than anywhere else on the north side, and the 47th Ward hasn’t had a reformer for years, at least among its elected officials. Kelly was forced out of the Park District in 1986 after a long battle with Mayor Harold Washington, and the power of ward committeemen declined precipitously after the federal courts imposed a ban on political hiring and firing in the 1980s. Schulter, meanwhile, has become a steady supporter of the current mayor’s initiatives. Every now and then he casts a calculated nay vote designed to reassure his increasingly affluent, liberal constituents that he’s his own man, such as when he opposed moving the Children’s Museum to Grant Park. But most of the time he goes along and gets along.
The calm in the 47th Ward was briefly disrupted in 2000, when Hoellen’s onetime adversaries broke out in a scuffle. With Mayor Daley looking on, Schulter took the biggest chance of his political career and ran against Kelly for committeeman (most aldermen are also the committeemen of their wards). The race between these two longtime allies was bitter and bruising. In a Shakespearean struggle—the son against the father, Schulter plastered the ward with his posters. But Kelly got the last laugh. One of his workers painted out a sign hanging on the el track at Montrose so that “Schulter” was converted into “Shitter.”
“People kept calling me—did you see that sign?” says Kelly, laughing. “I didn’t know anything about it—I tell you.”
Kelly won a narrow victory, but it was his last hurrah. When Kelly didn’t seek reelection in 2004, Schulter ran for committeeman unopposed, and he’s the last politician standing in the 47th Ward.
“I think this is where I want to retire,” Schulter says. “I love this job. I really do.”
It’s a shame a little of Hoellen’s fighting spirit hasn’t surfaced in Schulter or his constituents. It would be great to have an alderman like Hoellen in the council today—you wouldn’t see him voting for the parking meter deal or giving the mayor a blank check for the Olympics. He might lose but he’d go down with his guns blazing. At least then the other aldermen—and the public—couldn’t pretend they hadn’t been warned.
Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com. And for even more local politics, see our blog Clout City. Ben Joravsky discusses his Reader stories weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.