Robert Lee Hunter never regretted becoming a Chicagoan. After moving to town in the 20s to attend the University of Chicago Law School, the young man from Iowa joined a high-powered downtown law firm and made a good living right through the Depression. On the side he bred cattle, becoming the producer of highly prized capsules of frozen bull semen.
A lifelong Republican, Hunter ran for elective office several times and learned the hard way about the power of Chicago’s Democratic organization. In 1960 his wife launched a vote-fraud investigation that briefly threatened to overturn Kennedy’s carrying of Illinois in that year’s presidential election. The late mayor Richard J. Daley proceeded to appoint this troublesome woman’s husband to preside over the Cook County divorce court, a post to which he remained happily married until his retirement in 1979.
Judge Hunter, now 92, doesn’t remember making many mistakes during his long career. But there was that time in 1951 when he was running for mayor of Chicago.
Hunter, then 53, was a past president of the Illinois Civil Service Commission and the Better Government Association. His real opponent in ’51 wasn’t incumbent Martin Kennelly; it was a Democratic machine credited with having delivered Illinois to Harry Truman in 1948. Republicans were convinced that Kennelly’s defeat in 1951 would be a big step toward capturing the White House in ’52.
“Martin Kennelly was a nice man and good businessman but a poor mayor who didn’t do much more than go to wakes and funerals and shake hands with old ladies,” recalled Hunter. “The Chicago Democratic organization was the most powerful big-city machine in the country at that time. They put Kennelly over in 1947 but he wouldn’t have anything to do with them, which is why they put up Daley the next time. Kennelly thought of himself as an independent. But his administration was just like that statue of the monkey. You know, the one that sees no evil, hears no evil, speaks no evil. In fact, those lines were part of my campaign. At that time there were no one-way streets in Chicago, the Water Department was losing money, and the Police Department was run by an old dodo who said there was no mob in Chicago.”
During the campaign, the managing editor of the Tribune, Don Maxwell, would put his paper to bed and then meet Hunter at a restaurant two or three times a week. The pair brainstormed into the night. The Tribune’s views became Hunter’s platform. Tribune editorials were calling municipal ownership of the water works a socialistic venture doomed to failure, as “politicians think they can give something away for nothing.” Hunter said the same. Maxwell introduced Hunter to key sources–a bond-company man, for example, who verified that the Water Department wasn’t making the interest on its bonds.
“Mayoral rivals are girding for war” trumpeted a Tribune headline on February 4, 1951, marking the start of a race in which the challenger argued that big-city Democratic machines must be overturned to save the nation. “There is necessity and demand that bunglers, incompetents, spendthrifts, and coddlers of communists be removed from federal government,” Hunter declared. With the support of women, blacks, and “unbossed” Democrats, he hoped to become Chicago’s first Republican mayor since William Hale Thompson’s defeat 20 years earlier.
Hunter’s speeches sounded as if they’d been lifted from Colonel Robert R. McCormick’s newspaper. The Tribune blamed the local Democratic machine not just for corrupting everything and everybody in the city but for lengthening Harry Truman’s stay in the White House. And Truman’s sins included perpetuating Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, bringing America into the Korean War, and making photojournalistic history by waving the Tribune edition that proclaimed Thomas Dewey the winner of the ’48 election.
Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson called this national approach to a local election “a political absurdity.” Maybe so, but all the local Republican powers that be–from Senator Everett Dirksen to the ward committeemen–talked as if the cold war and Korea were at the front of every Chicago voter’s mind.
As the Tribune accused Kennelly of “dodging” national issues, Hunter emphasized them. To Young Republicans gathered in the LaSalle Hotel, he spoke of “the senseless slaughter” of Americans in Korea, and he charged Truman and the national Democratic Party with leaning heavily on the local parties to keep themselves in power.
Kennelly’s ’47 election had been the work of “the greatest gang of political boodlers in the nation’s history,” Hunter told the crowd. “He was spread over the top of this smelly machine like icing over a spoiled cake. Four years have stripped off the icing. The foul mess is there for all of us to see. As distasteful as the task may be, we must examine each part of it and remove from public office the man who has permitted these conditions to persist.”
Tribune reporter George Tagge wrote of the candidate’s “oratorical shift from mild-mannered boxer to wild swinging slugger.”
During the campaign Hunter averaged some 14 appearances a day. He delivered three 15-minute speeches a week on radio station WIND. He even bought 25 minutes of WGN TV airtime the night before the election to answer questions from a studio audience invited in off the street.
Hunter had eaten a lot of steak with Don Maxwell and he expected the Tribune’s hearty endorsement. But two days before the election, the Tribune ran a three-paragraph editorial saying there’s “no reason for any man leaving his party on the mayoralty issue.”
What accounted for Martin Kennelly’s transformation from a do-nothing lackey to a conscientious mayor trying his best in an imperfect world?
“I made one serious mistake in that campaign,” confessed Hunter. “A classmate of mine from the University of Chicago did a lot of work against Commonwealth Edison. He tipped me off that Kennelly had approved that new contract with the city in 1948 without having held any public hearings. Kennelly let them slide through. He wasn’t much of a worker. He was a handshaker and ribbon cutter but not much of a mayor. So I raised hell about that in a speech. Well, that speech of mine wasn’t very popular. I didn’t know it at the time but the chairman of the board of Commonwealth Edison was on the Tribune Company’s board of directors and the paper would do anything he wanted them to do. Some of the old newspapermen on my staff, my publicity people, told me after I made that speech that the chairman of Com Ed told them not to endorse me. So instead of crusading for my candidacy, the Tribune just wrote ‘Both are good men. There’s no reason to change.’ I carried 16 wards, Kennelly carried the rest.”
Hunter’s strategy meetings with the Tribune were never made public. After an election in which 60 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls–one of the lowest turnouts in years–the Daily News editorialized: “Hunter campaigned without vigorous support from any major newspaper, a fact which in itself tended to reduce the total vote.”
So what does this former mayoral aspirant think today, now that Commonwealth Edison–with another of its chairmen on the Tribune board and in other seats of power–appears on the verge of renewing that 1948 lease?
The old man smiled. “I bought some Commonwealth Edison stock about 25 or 30 years ago. It’s a good buy.”
Judge Hunter made lots of good buys through the years and lots of good friends, too. Only the investments live on. This only child’s parents both died over 50 years ago. His first wife, Betty, whom he met on a blind date in 1934, died in 1973. They raised four children in a house in Kenwood that they bought in 1947 for $1,200. Hunter and his second wife, Laura–his secretary in divorce court–sold the house 40 years later for $130,000 and moved to a 42nd-floor condo in the Gold Coast.
Hunter swam in Chicago’s waters of significance for some 50 years. Closing his eyes seems to help him recall those days. You can feel the mind at work behind those bushy white-and-gray eyebrows as he reaches deep into that pink dome–once cloaked in auburn and now swept by a few white wisps. Born in 1898, he belongs to a generation that saw more change than any other probably ever will.
“My friends keep dropping off,” he said. “Four of them just this last year.” Most missed from the shrinking circle of lawyers and judges is J. Roswell Chrisman, once a corporate attorney who “owned about half the state of Iowa. . . . When he got sick, I thought he’d get well and we’d get around again. That was a great blow.” Their friendship dated back eight decades to the town in Iowa where Hunter grew up.
Hunter sleeps too well to see the sun rise over Lake Michigan. When tackling the morning Tribune, he takes keen interest in stocks and that tip-of-the-iceberg stuff called local politics. He doesn’t know much more now than he reads in the paper. Nowadays, his world is what he sees from his couch, a spectacular view embracing Oak Street beach, the filtration plant, and Navy Pier. Living so far above the topical turbulence that shapes the news, Hunter probably won’t earn a headline in the daily press again until after he’s slept through his last sunrise.
“I don’t know why it is that I can vividly remember things that happened 70 years ago, but then sometimes it’ll take me five minutes to remember the name of my wife,” he said, sitting on that couch, looking out over the lake. “I was brought up in Mapleton, a small town in western Iowa, where I noticed at a young age that all the principal people in town were retired farmers who had sold their land, bankers, and two lawyers. I decided in high school that I wanted to be a big-city lawyer. During the summers I worked on neighboring farms. I used to get up at five in the morning, feed and harness the horses while the boss fed the pigs and cows and chickens. We’d have breakfast at six and by seven we’d be out in the cornfields. My main job was to take care of the horses. I went to bed at night around eight o’clock. By the end of high school I got to where I was making $35 a month, which was a man’s wage. But people told me I’d never own my own farm because they’re too expensive to buy.
“When I was a kid, you could buy 160 acres of land, machinery, and livestock for less than you pay for a tractor today. I used to plant corn with a team of four big mules and a one-row walking cultivator. On a good day I’d plant ten acres. Today, with a two- or four-row cultivator and a tractor, a farmer can plant 160 acres. With that big machinery they use, you can’t run it on 160 acres. A farmer may own 240 acres and rent out another 1,000 acres. Farming is an entirely different game now. Back then, every farm would trade eggs and butter and peaches for things like salt and pepper and sugar. You’d butcher a hog or a steer. You had gardens and big barns full of hay. Today, you go out in that good farmland in Iowa and barns are empty. There are no horses. Well, the ones you see are riding horses, not for working crops. There are no pigs or chickens and little gardening. Three-quarters of the buildings have been torn down and replaced by patches of cottonwood or maple trees. I don’t think farmers are as well off as when every farm raised chickens, ducks, geese, and a few hogs. Back then, people really lived off the land.
“Every town had a livery stable. In Mapleton, we had two. Both had about ten teams. If you wanted to go anyplace you rented a team. They had two-seated buggies and four-seated buggies. After the telephones went in, doctors would rent a team and go out to farms and make house calls. The horse-drawn buses held 12 people and met passenger trains which took you to Sioux City.
“Cars came in gradually. One of the wealthy bankers bought the first car, then a doctor bought a two-seated car. A couple fellows started a Ford agency and another fellow started a Maxwell agency. A man named G.A. Smith bought a Ford touring car, the only car he ever owned. He made a lot of money as the western manager of a New York life insurance company, bought 5,000 acres of land, and hired my father to manage his ranches. My father learned to drive Mr. Smith’s car and so did I. Horses got scared of the cars and often ran away because they’d see this buggy coming down the road without a team in front of it. We used to say, “What’s the matter with the horses? Well, if you saw a pair of pants coming down the road with no top on ’em, you’d be scared too.’
“In 1915 I started a wrestling team at my high school. I took a big piece of cotton flannel, filled it with corn shucks, and made a wrestling mat out of it. I challenged anyone to a match, and eventually formed a team that competed against high schools from other towns.
“The carnivals that came to town had this contest where if you could stay with their wrestlers for ten minutes they’d give you $25. Most of them couldn’t pin me. I weighed 190 pounds. Laboring men were always in my corner rooting for me. I started a wrestling career and called myself Tommy Tucker so my mother couldn’t find out about it. One day I was driving home with her from Sioux City. There was this crew working on the road. They had horses, scrapers, and six feet of dirt piled up in the middle of the road so I had to drive slow. Some of the men recognized me and said ‘Hey, there’s Tommy Tucker.’ My mother looked at me and said, ‘I always wondered why your father went to Sioux City every time that Tommy Tucker wrestled.'”
Robert Lee Hunter was a Big Ten champion wrestler at Iowa, played on the 1921 conference champion football team, and graduated in 1922. He took a job at the high school in Cherokee, Iowa, coaching five sports–football, basketball, wrestling, baseball, and track. His football and baseball teams won state titles.
Hunter moved to Chicago in 1924. “I was down at the depot with a trunk. I’d been admitted to Harvard [law school]. There were some advantages to Harvard–a better class of students and more good job openings. But my parents weren’t well. I thought that if I ever got to Boston I’d never get back. So, I decided right there to get off the train in Chicago and go to law school there. My father used to ship livestock here, mostly cattle, so I had some friends. And I’d been here before. My first visit was as a member of the University of Iowa football team to play Northwestern and the University of Chicago. At that time, Chicago probably had the best faculty in the country.
“When I came here that fall, a friend put me in touch with the coach and owner of the pro football franchise in Hammond, Indiana. They needed bodies and paid $50 a game, which was enough to live on. I played for three years. There were practices two or three nights a week and everyone had jobs working. George Halas played end with the Bears. Smart guy. I played guard. I wasn’t great, but got along OK.
“The stockyards were the biggest industry in Chicago then. Armour, Swift, Wilson, and Libby, McNeil & Libby were all slaughtering in Back of the Yards. When there was a strike [in 1921], the neighborhood people weren’t exactly friendly with the packing companies. All those charitable and civic organizations were sympathetic to the people who had those jobs. So when the strike was over, the packers decided they better join those people. They formed the Stockyards Business and Civic Association and gave money to churches, settlement houses, parks, and the YMCA. They ran a day nursery at 43rd and Ashland for mothers who worked in the stockyards. The group was headed by a professional organizer and social worker who got in bed with the powers that be. My roommate was head of employment services at the university and told me about a part-time job opening. I ran right down there and got the job as secretary.
“I worked out of an office on the third floor of a bank at 47th and Ashland. The packers paid my salary, office rent, and expenses. I worked with the churches and settlement houses, helping the packers finance a lot of programs. Those groups weren’t fighting us. There were no strikes while I was there. In 1927, when I was about to graduate from law school, the packers told me they were going to discontinue this work. It had been a fine spot for me because I met a lot of businessmen.”
As graduation day approached, he considered an offer to become president of a small Back of the Yards bank. But through his father’s connections, he wound up instead working in the law firm of Bailey, Merrick, Webster and Gregory.
George Merrick was best known for his courtroom successes on behalf of Montgomery Ward. The retailer and catalog magnate bought some land on Michigan Avenue between Washington and Madison in 1887 and believed he had a right to an unobstructed view of Lake Michigan. He based this claim on an 1836 subdivision map that designated the area as “public ground forever to remain vacant of building.” Ward sued the city four times between 1890 and 1911 to prevent construction on the east side of Michigan Avenue. As a result, he and Merrick won a reputation as watchdogs of the lakefront.
From Merrick’s partners Hunter later heard about another side to the relationship. “Mr. Merrick often got phone calls in the middle of the night and he’d have to go out in a horse and buggy to get Montgomery Ward out of some scrape with a woman. One time Montgomery Ward brought home an infant girl, handed her to his wife, and said, “This is our child and we’re going to keep her.’ Marjorie Montgomery Ward was their only child. She grew up to be an attractive and charming woman, with all kinds of money I suppose. She died about 30 years ago. I did some work for her once, suing Continental Bank to dissolve some trusts set up for her by her father.”
Ward’s philandering wasn’t commonly known, for reasons Hunter attributes to the skills of gifted publicists. “When John Boyle was chief judge of the county courts, he told me his PR man was more valuable for what he kept out of the papers than what he put in. Many wealthy people pay people to keep their names out of the news.”
The Depression ruined a lot of people, but not young Hunter.
“I did pretty well in the Depression because I was one of few lawyers representing holders of real-estate bonds. Many of these bonds were issued from small banks in places like Danville, Decatur, Elkhart, and Green Bay. The bank would make a loan on a building and then do a lot of things it had no business doing. The bank would appraise it, make loans, issue bonds, appoint the person who managed it, and not allow anybody to see the records. The bank would say the property was in good shape and that the interest and the taxes were paid even if none of this was true. Then, when the bank went into receivership, I got a chance to see the records. I made them buy back their bonds because they were in default when they sold them.
“One of my cases was against the Edgewater Presbyterian Church. A number of so-called wealthy members of the congregation guaranteed the bond issue to pay for the new church, then didn’t pay the principal and interest. So they went into default. I started a suit against the guarantors. They cried to high heaven and said they’d guaranteed the bonds out of Christian duty. They put up all kinds of defenses but I kept at them and they eventually paid their bonds because they didn’t want it to go public.
“Northwestern University was one of the firm’s clients. It owned a parcel of land in Evanston. A man rented it, tore down the trees, put in a foundation for a big building, and when the Depression hit promptly went broke. All the people working on the job came after the university to get paid. Mr. Merrick said there was nothing to do but pay up, but I said I thought that made no sense. How can people come into your property, tear it up, go bankrupt, and leave you liable to pay their workers? They gave me the case and I tried to find a way around it. In the Evanston building ordinances I found out it’s illegal to start construction without a building permit. So I set up the university’s defense on the premise that the contractor didn’t have a permit. The case wound up in the state supreme court, which held that the ordinance was valid and that my defense was a good one. That was my first case that made law. For a while, it was the leading case in the state.
“The subcontractors’ lawyers said that in 50 years they’d never taken out a building permit. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you’re in business for another 50 years, you won’t miss taking one out.'”
Contrary to what folks back home had told him, Hunter did become a landowner. Depression-era foreclosures made that expensive Iowa farmland dirt cheap. His first buy–80 acres of Iowa that had belonged to an insurance company that went belly up–cost him $1,000. His second buy was 160 acres for $3,000!
Hunter’s father died in 1937. A year later his mother died, and he inherited the farm she had inherited from her mother. Hunter sold it in 1940 and used the money to buy a 240-acre dairy farm north of Lake Geneva.
“I had some registered horses and cattle on my farm up in Wisconsin. I decided to get some registered sheep. So I went over to a farm in Palwaukee, Wisconsin, and was told to get some Oxford downs. The fellow told me the ewes give a little more milk, and the lambs mature a little earlier so you can clip more wool. I went to another farm in Elkhorn, Wisconsin, and was told to get the Hampshire. The ewes give a little more milk and the lambs mature a little earlier so you can clip more wool. Next, I went to the Curtis Breeding Service, which was owned by Curtis Candies. The manager said, ‘We like the Shropshire. The ewes give a little more milk and the lambs mature a little earlier so you can clip more wool.’ I was telling this story on a bus ride with the Chicago Farmers [a club of farm-owning businessmen] when Al Jones of Iowa pipes in, ‘By God, you mean nobody told you about the merino? The ewes give a little more milk. The lambs do clip a little more wool and they do mature a little earlier in the spring.’ I said nuts to the purebred sheep business.”
Hunter was more comfortable dealing in cattle.
“When Edward Ravenscroft, the head of Abbott Laboratories, had his sale, Carl Meyer, the chief surgeon at Cook County Hospital, bought a fancy-bred calf named Urena for $2,000. He took it to a farm and traded it because he thought it was too big. The calf weighed a ton. My manager found out about it and went to the farm and traded two heifers for it. This cow made the state record with 1,150 pounds of fat. We bred it with the most popular bull at the time, a holstein from the Wisconsin state herd. He belonged to Pabst. In fact, that’s where he finished off his career. Pabst shipped those semen capsules all over the country. Well, my cow Urena had a bull heifer which sold at the Waukesha, Wisconsin, sale for $7,500–the top-selling price for any animal in public auction in 1959. That was a pretty good investment.”
Hunter, board chairman of the International Dairy Show when it was held at the International Amphitheatre, kept a hundred head of purebred cattle on his last farm. He sold frozen semen samples around the country and bulls around the world. “This fellow in the milk business in Quebec wanted a bull, so I sent him pictures of twins and said he could have his pick. He wanted both so I had to deliver. Their names were Amos and Andy. One of those damn bulls turned out to be the best breeder in all of Canada up until that time. I think Andy was the good one. Amos wasn’t worth a damn, I don’t know why. But Andy must have bred thousands of cows.”
Hunter bought and sold a total of ten farms through the years. Each time he sold he profited. His last farm–240 acres in Lake County, Illinois–cost him $200 an acre in the 50s. He sold it in 1985 for $700,000, or nearly $3,000 an acre. “The reason I got such a good price is that Henry Crown made a $58 million profit on some near-north-side buildings that sold for $90 million. The Crowns didn’t want to pay capital-gains tax, so they had the buyer buy my farm and a couple other adjoining ones. They then traded that in as part of the deal for these buildings east of me which were turned into condos. The buyers were the same people who bought Lake Point Tower. I don’t know how much capital-gains tax they saved, but it must have been a great deal.”
Hunter made his money in corporate law and farming, but he retained a lifelong interest in public affairs. “My mother and father were public-spirited people. My father was master of his Masonic lodge. My mother was prominent in the Eastern Star and White Shrine, the women’s branch of the Masons. My father was the marshal for a time and superintendent of the Sunday school. When he died in 1937, he was the mayor of my hometown. I got my original indoctrination from them.
“When I was growing up in Mapleton they had gaslights. A man would come around on a horse at sunset and light them and then around 11:30 he’d come around again to turn them off. Later, in the early teens, or maybe ’07, ’08, ’09, or ’10, they started putting in electric-light plants. McGraw Electric came to Mapleton and took it over. Then, in about 1925, my father was on the town council which hired a lawyer and took the electric company to the Iowa Supreme Court before winning the right to set its own rates. I was sitting in my office one night reading the Chicago Journal of Commerce. I saw this story headlined ‘Sad Case of Mapleton,’ about a little town in Iowa that built its own light plant. The established way to light a community was through high lines. Well, the story said this little town would be poorer and wiser for not using the high lines. Four years later, I got a letter from my father saying Mapleton was lighting its own streets, pumping its own water, and making money besides.”
Hunter made his first run for public office in 1936, when he was 38. “Some people didn’t like the candidates so they came to me. I was practicing law at the time. They said if I’d run for congressman in the Second District they’d finance my campaign. In the primary I ran against Paddy Moynihan, who ran a little south-side coal business, and gave him quite a go. I came in second of six and made a lot of friends.
“In 1947, I ran for the county judge position that was in charge of all election machinery in Cook County. That was a powerful office. It would have been a good stepping-stone to something else. And I would have straightened out some things. After that election I tried to get a recount but learned that this was impossible in Chicago. The machine set up a procedure in which before counting ballots from the precincts you had to have the witnesses present. Several thousand witnesses would have to be subpoenaed. And they could only count three boxes a day. I’m still convinced that I won that election, but I’m also convinced that if they’d have kept counting we wouldn’t be through yet.”
During World War II, Governor Dwight Green appointed Hunter to head the Illinois Civil Service Commission, which supervised permanent state employees. After the war, civil service procedures were dropped so that veterans could get first crack at jobs. State Senator Richard J. Daley, who was Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly’s legislative leader, appeared in Hunter’s office.
“Dick Daley was always extremely well dressed in dark blue suits. He was clean, well groomed, and spoke quietly. As Kelly’s lead guy in Springfield, he’d come wanting to know where their people were on the civil service list. Some people used to come in and say, ‘Put this person on the list,’ which you can’t do under the law. People that are honest don’t ask you to do things that are illegal or unethical. Dick Daley never asked for anything you couldn’t give him.”
By 1951, Richard J. Daley was Cook County clerk. Martin Kennelly was mayor of Chicago, now campaigning for reelection by claiming that he’d improved each city department–the police department, for instance, by establishing a narcotics bureau. And Robert Hunter, his Republican opponent, blamed Kennelly for a 300 percent increase in the use of narcotics by Chicago children in the last four years. “Give me command of the city’s army of more than 7,000 policemen,” said Hunter, “and I will break the back of the drug traffic in Chicago.”
In 1951, the Edens Expressway was almost completed and there was much talk of other expressway routes. The Tribune noted Air Force plans to build a military air terminal in “the city’s O’Hare International air field near Park Ridge.” The new census reported that Chicago’s white population had grown 3 percent in the 1940s, its black population 45 percent.
Blacks came north for the wartime factory jobs but had trouble finding work in state government. “Up until that time, people applying for jobs with the state had to include their pictures on the Civil Service Commission application,” Hunter recalled. “Blacks objected, saying this prevented them from getting any jobs downstate. You realize that southern Illinois is farther south than Richmond, Virginia. A black state representative named Charlie Jenkins tried to get a bill passed for ten years changing this law, but the whites kept voting it down. He came to me when I was president of the commission to say he was going to try again. I said, ‘Let me check it out first.’ It turned out there wasn’t a law requiring pictures on the application. It was just a Civil Service Commission rule, which I eliminated. That was a great thing for the colored people. Some good Chicago Negroes were hired in the Civil Service Commission in Springfield and that got played up in the paper.”
On resigning the commission presidency to run for mayor, Hunter actively sought what then was called the “Negro vote.” “During the campaign, I visited three or four black churches every Sunday. With a good minister and good music, black people fill their churches from 10 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon. After this one service, I approached the minister, who was really dressed to kill in striped trousers, a pearl gray vest, and a cutaway suit. I told him, ‘I have $15 and would like to know where it would do the most good.’ He took the money, stuck it in his vest pocket, and said ‘It would do the most good right here.'”
Betty Hunter began making several appearances a day for her husband. “My wife was a fine public speaker who taught in the Chicago public schools for 20 years. After she began speaking on my behalf to women’s clubs, the papers came out with this story that I had a secret weapon–my wife. Kennelly was a bachelor. He had a babe on the north side that he was laying up with, but he never had a wife. I was married to a wonderful woman. During that campaign, I used to say Betty had an advantage. She could talk about me, but I had to talk about the issues.”
Robert Hunter’s first meeting with Don Maxwell took place in the Tribune Tower around Christmas of 1950. The managing editor sent him upstairs to meet the paper’s editor, publisher, and principal owner. “Colonel McCormick was a great man who always had this big police dog laying on the rug there. I discussed things with him but never talked about the newspaper’s endorsement.”
Hunter began dining regularly with Maxwell, but he couldn’t get a meeting with the Republican committeemen until January. “Leonard East, the chairman of the Republican committeemen, kept holding me up. There was this lawyer named Henry Gardner in the warehouse business with Kennelly. They stored all the ballots and voting machines, a lucrative contract. East used to go to Gardner’s office all the time. I know because some newspapermen told me they followed him there. I think East was getting money from Kennelly’s partner.”
Hunter, who emerged as the only Republican candidate for mayor, finally met the committeemen when Senator Robert Taft of Ohio came to town to solicit help in his campaign for the presidency. Hunter identified some key supporters and met regularly with them in Republican headquarters.
Hunter called Kennelly “the rich man’s mayor.” He drummed up his own support through 17 volunteer committees, among them such populous outfits as Advertising Executives for Hunter and Chiropodists for Hunter. For one photo opportunity, checks from 250 Board of Trade members appeared in his hands. Speaking to the Women’s Republican Club, Hunter hoped that the ladies would press for a thorough “housecleaning” by forming “51 Clubs,” a strategy aimed at getting 10,000 volunteers to pledge 51 voters apiece. The Republican national chairman came to town and said no political event in 1951 would have a bigger bearing on the ’52 presidential campaign than the one going on in Chicago.
On a rainy night several days before the election, some 13,000 supporters in Chicago Stadium heard Senator Everett Dirksen declare that Hunter’s election would have national repercussions, “revitalizing the drive against organized crime and ebbing official morals in high places.” The Mob can’t thrive without police connivance, Hunter told the rally. He called communism, gangsterism, and court corruption by-products of a political machine that “defames the fair name of Chicago and hides under the blanket of respectability the foulest police mess ever assembled in one municipality in the history of the United States.”
Two days later, Hunter stumbled. In his regular WIND broadcast, he blasted the mayor for letting the phone company raise its rates and the CTA raise its fares. So far, so good. But he also accused Kennelly of helping Com Ed win its new franchise over the objections of aldermen who felt the terms “did not adequately protect the city’s interests.”
That final Sunday, which saw the Tribune endorsing nobody, George Tagge reported on the last stretch of a “strange” mayoral race in which neither candidate had a campaign manager and neither was supported enthusiastically by his party. Leonard East, the Republican chairman–who Hunter still believes had been bought by the Democrats–told the Tribune that Hunter had insisted on personally running every aspect of his campaign. Tagge wrote that Hunter focused too hard on local issues, observing that the “brawny, former professional football player . . . avoided free-swinging name-calling.”
“Sometime after losing that election, I went to Don Maxwell and asked him why the Trib hadn’t done more for my campaign,” recalled Hunter. “Maxwell mentioned ‘Curly’ Brooks, this old dodo whose career was over. See, Maxwell was a great friend of Brooks. They used to drink together. They were big drinkers. Curly had been defeated when running for reelection to the [U.S.] Senate and was down on his heels, but Maxwell thought Curly Brooks could be governor. So he wanted me to have Brooks introduce me at that rally in the Stadium. I said, ‘Let me check with the powers that be.’ The committeemen all said, ‘In the first place, Curly Brooks is as dead as Kelly’s nuts. And, in the second place, we already have Margaret Church, the U. S. representative from Evanston, and Senator Everett Dirksen coming in. They’re going to give speeches and then introduce you. It would be a little embarrassing to try to change that to get Brooks in.’
“Maxwell knew that, and he knew that what I really needed was a good strong editorial. ‘But I asked you to do me that favor for Curly Brooks.’ Well, that was a damn lie, a cover-up for him. The chairman of the board of Commonwealth Edison was one of his bosses who dictated the way the Tribune covered the campaign. But Don didn’t want to admit that his bosses changed his mind.”
Hunter abandoned electoral politics. But shortly before the 1960 presidential election, he found himself behind the scenes of a national political story.
“My wife uncovered a lot of evidence of vote fraud while going door-to-door in our precinct with the official canvas from the November 1958 election,” Hunter said. “She wanted me to draw up a recount bill. I said, ‘I’m too busy trying to make a living. You do it.’ At a party, she went up to the editor of the Daily News, a man named “Stuffy” Walters, and told him she had found all kinds of monkey business–people voting from vacant lots and empty buildings, voters who had moved away or died. ‘Well, I’ll be damned,’ he said. ‘I’ll bring George Thiem back from Springfield to look into this.'”
Thiem, whose 1956 expose of embezzling state auditor Orville Hodge had brought the Daily News a Pulitzer, launched an investigation. “Housewife Spurs Clean Election Drive on S. Side” was the headline over the opening story, which disclosed Mrs. Hunter’s discovery of 95 ineligible voters in her Kenwood precinct. By mid-October, a citizens committee organized by Betty Hunter had found 1,000 phony voters on official Fourth Ward polling sheets. Soon, 8,000 canvassers were going door-to-door citywide in a futile attempt to clean up poll lists before the November 8 election.
Senator John Kennedy defeated Vice President Richard Nixon in Illinois by fewer than 9,000 votes–that’s less than one vote per precinct. Kennedy carried Chicago by more than 450,000 votes. The Cook County Republican chairman bluntly told reporters that Kennedy’s victory was stolen in the wards of the city.
National GOP headquarters asked the party organizations in eight states, including Illinois, if recounts could change the outcome of those states’ elections. Mayor Daley publicly dismissed the recount effort. But in December, Governor William Stratton, a Republican trounced on election day by Otto Kerner, threatened to refuse to certify Illinois’ 27 electoral votes. Daley was incensed. He accused Dixiecrats and northern Republicans of conspiring to cheat Kennedy out of the presidency.
“Since we had all this evidence of vote fraud, we had Senator Dirksen call Nixon and ask if he wanted us to start a recount,” said Hunter, a recount committee member along with such heavyweights as General Robert Wood, the retired CEO of Sears Roebuck, and Charles Percy, then head of Bell & Howell. “We were sure we could have won. But Nixon said no, because he didn’t want to upset the foreign policy. He was afraid that a recount might set the country back. For the welfare of the country, he said we should forget it.”
On December 19, 1960, a GOP spokesman announced that the party was dropping its recount plans. Benjamin Adamowski, who’d lost a close race for Cook County state’s attorney to future State Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Ward, pressed ahead with a countywide recount. But that exercise collapsed the following August, when a downstate judge dismissed 677 poll workers charged with wrongdoing. This Democrat from East Saint Louis had been imported after the presiding Cook County judge disqualified himself for having been a candidate in the disputed election. The new judge was quoted as calling the 1960 balloting “the cleanest election Chicago ever had.”
Hunter became a judge through odd circumstances.
“Daley’s secretary called one day in 1962 and said they were having a meeting of the judges’ candidates’ committee at the Morrison Hotel. I said, ‘Young lady, I think you’ve made a mistake. I’m a Republican and don’t expect to change.’ She said she understood but that the mayor wanted me there. I went and told them that I believed that I had the training and the experience to be a judge. They said, ‘Thank you very much.’ I followed up with a letter to Daley saying if they were interested in experienced and trained lawyers that I’d like to become a judge. As a lawyer, I always had a lot of respect for judges and was interested in ending my career as one. In due course, I was notified that I’d be one of the five Republicans slated by the Democrats for judgeships. The Democratic leadership controlled 17 judgeships and decided to include some Republicans so that they could say they had a bipartisan ticket.”
Being a token Republican made for some uncomfortable evenings.
“That fall Sidney Yates was running for the U. S. Senate seat held by Everett Dirksen. The mayor wanted President Kennedy to endorse Yates at a meeting in McCormick Place. There were three speakers’ platforms. The one where the mayor and the president sat was above the candidates’ tables. All evening long the mayor nodded at particular candidates, who would then come up and meet the president. Finally, I saw the mayor nodding at me. I pretended I didn’t see him. He nodded again and again. I pretended not to see. Then both Mayor Daley and President Kennedy began looking at me. The woman sitting next to me, another candidate for judge, was a big fan of the president and had been saying she would like his autograph. So with both of them looking at me, I nudged her and said the president wanted to meet her.”
After winning the election, Hunter expressed his thanks the old fashioned way.
“All judges are entitled to personal bailiffs but I didn’t have one I wanted to appoint. I called Daley’s secretary, his patronage secretary, and said I needed a personal bailiff and wanted somebody who was reliable, since the bailiff is responsible for keeping order in your courtroom. A month went by and I hadn’t heard back from them. There was a bailiff in my courtroom. He was a clean, decent fellow. So I called Daley’s secretary again and said ‘You haven’t sent a bailiff yet, but I’ve got one here from Vito Marzullo’s ward who seems pretty good.’ Well, that turned out to be a stroke of genius. Calling Daley’s secretary to say so was another stroke of genius. Just then, Daley had been pushing for a change in the way judges are elected. The mayor had to straighten out Marzullo for opposing this, but he was also anxious to curry Vito’s favor again. One day John Boyle, the chief judge, walked in my office and said, ‘You’re a smart SOB!’ I said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ He said ‘I just came from the mayor’s office.’ He says, ‘I put 17 fellows on the bench and Hunter is the only one who gave me a bailiff.'”
Hunter’s phone calls enabled Daley to take credit for feathering the patronage nest of Marzullo, a machine pol who thought it was just fine to pick judges on the basis of political connections. Daley, who thought the jobs should be awarded on merit, gave the “smart SOB” a promotion.
“I’d been on the bench at Criminal Court for a year when I heard Dick Daley wanted to make me the head of the new divorce court that was being set up. I said, ‘I don’t know anything about divorce,’ and was told, ‘That’s what they’re looking for.’ I was reelected twice and served as presiding judge for 15 years. As presiding judge, it was up to me to assign judges to a case. I had a total of 20 judges. There was never a backlog. If somebody wanted a trial, we gave them a trial. I was the only person to ever head the Cook County Divorce Court because while I was still there the name was changed to the Domestic Relations Division. We had 6 marriage counselors; now they have 30.
“I was a happily married man. Most all of my friends were happily married, too. That’s the way I thought people were supposed to live. But in divorce court, I learned that lots of people shouldn’t have been married in the first place. One woman came into my chambers and said she was ‘fed up to here with marriage.’ I asked, ‘How many times have you been married?’ She said seven times. Well, there’s no law against it. There was lots of infidelity–mistresses and prostitutes. One thing or another. The judges, we rarely talked shop. I suppose we had enough of it in court.”
Judge Hunter took personnel issues to City Hall.
“Once in a while I’d have to talk to the mayor because I wanted a new judge or wanted somebody moved. Dick Daley was an unusual person. He kept things to himself. You’d go in and talk to him and he’d never say yes or no. Of course, when I was chairman of the board of Provident Hospital and went to talk to him about an addition, the mayor said, ‘Build a big one!’ But generally he’d not say anything. He had a pad of paper about five inches square and he’d make a note or two. If he planned to take action, he wouldn’t tell you. He’d just thank you for coming.
“He controlled the whole city that way and the Sanitary District and the County Board. Nobody would move without talking to him. Everyone did business with him. He was a one-man gang. He ran the works. If I’d been mayor, I’d have had an organization. Dick Daley controlled the city absolutely. Chicago could still be run like that, yet I don’t think this boy has the moxie his father had nor that he’s as strong or as knowledgeable. But he’s trying hard.”
Hunter denies that he wound up on the bench because Daley wanted to co-opt his wife and him politically. He says he never voted for Daley. Yet he refuses to blame the late mayor for the corruption of Daley’s political machine.
“There’s no question that Daley was an absolute czar. But it was the precinct captains who stole the elections. They inserted the ballots for people living on vacant lots and for the people who had moved away. The precinct captains did all that monkey business because they were told they had to deliver their precincts or else they’d lose their jobs.
“I enjoyed being a judge right from the start. The jury decides the facts, and you give the law. All the things that bother people you deal with when you’re hearing a case. You think you’re going to have difficulty making up your mind, but you really don’t. You listen to every case with an open mind and to the evidence on both sides. If you’re listening carefully, things finally open up. There comes a time when you’re hearing a case when the facts are all out there and you can make a decision.”
Once Illinois judges had to step down at age 70. That ended when Judge Hunter reached retirement age. A new law–in Springfield it was called the “Hunter Bill”–allowed a judge to serve to the end of the term during which he or she turned 75. “I was still hearing cases when I was 80. But when I began saying to people, ‘Speak up,’ I realized it was time for me to get out of there. The judge who can’t hear isn’t much of a judge.”
Ask Robert Hunter his ideas for judicial reform and you don’t get much of an answer. He doesn’t have a lot to say about merit selection of judges versus popular elections. Ask how his life might have changed if he hadn’t offended Com Ed in 1951 and he doesn’t describe a long and distinguished political career. He doesn’t think he would have had much of a career at all. “I didn’t have many ideas.”
His idea nowadays is to travel some more with his wife Laura, “a smart and loyal woman who is about 30 years younger than I.” Hunter’s other main idea is to keep up with his four kids and nine grandchildren, seven of whom are now in college. “I hope they all grow up to be good Republicans,” says this party loyalist, who can’t remember ever supporting a Democrat before last November, when he voted for Richard Phelan.
Sooner or later, Judge Robert L. Hunter will pass on. And his passing will shatter one more link between these times of ours and the America that did not know television or radio or the telephone.
“My mother’s father used to regale us with his tales about fighting in the Civil War and being with Sherman’s cavalry on his march to the sea. He used to tell these stories by the hour to me or to me and my cousins. One story I remember is about carrying messages in the southern part of the midwest. My grandfather had a horse and this other fellow had a mule. They were being chased by some Confederates, and the fellow on the mule couldn’t catch up. My grandfather took both notes. The fellow was captured.
“My grandfather was a tough old guy. Lee Chapman was his name. I’m named for my two grandfathers. The other’s name was Robert Hunter. Anyway, one time my mother’s father had this hernia that came out on him. A couple of doctors worked on it but couldn’t get it back in. So they decided to operate on the kitchen table. My father told me it was the damnedest thing you ever saw. They cut him open right there and stuck the gut back in. Well, those doctors wound up moving to Nebraska. My grandfather took a homesteading claim out there. He said if he ever saw those doctors, he’d shoot ’em,” Hunter laughed, his blue eyes bright.
“He lived to be about 85. One morning, he got up, put on his clothes, and fell back on his bed dead. That was a little tough on his descendants, but what a great way to go.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.