Richard J. Daley: A Separate World

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(Page 4: Daley's Childhood)

An excerpt from "American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley — His Battle for Chicago and the Nation" by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor

Jump to: 1 (Chicago) | 2 (The Neighborhood) | 3 (Irish Immigration)
4 (Daley's Childhood) | 5 (Daley's Education) | 6 (The Athletic Club)
7 (Racism) | 8 (Irish Politics) | 9 (Daley's Early Political Career)

Daley spent his childhood in conditions a distinct notch above the world of his grandfathers. He was born just as Chicago's Irish immigrants were making the hard transition from "shanty Irish" to the more respectable echelons of the lower middle class. Daley's father, Michael, was a sheet-metal worker and a business agent for his union. The Daleys fit in well in a neighborhood whose beliefs were few but deeply cherished: the Catholic Church, family, labor unions, and the White Sox, who played at Comiskey Park, just a few blocks away from the Daley home.

In the teeming Irish-Catholic world of Hamburg, Daley was a rarity: an only child. He and his parents were, perhaps because there were only three of them, an unusually closely knit family. Michael Daley, a wiry man who almost always sported a derby, was a man of few words. If Daley did not learn ambition or politics at his father's knee, he did acquire one of the mannerisms that would serve best in his career: speaking little and keeping his own counsel. "Part of the mystique of Richard Daley is that no one ever seems to know precisely what he thinks," one observer has written. Daley's taciturn ways may have been sheer political strategy, but they were also the prevailing character trait in the Daley household. "I think the reason he's always had trouble talking," an old Bridgeport neighbor recalled, "was that there weren't any other children in his home, and his parents were quiet people."

Daley's father also taught him respect for authority and reverence for the government. Years later, when his own mayoral authority was questioned by civil rights protesters, Daley would invoke a lesson he learned from his father at the funeral parade for Governor Edward Dunne. "There is the governor of Illinois, son," Daley recalled his father saying to him. "Take off your hat."

Lillian Dunne Daley was eight years older than Daley's father, and she had a far stronger personality. Students of Irish history contend that as families left the land and moved to cities, gender roles changed, and women began to play a more dominant role. Mrs. Daley was one of this new breed, the "powerful and autocratic Irish matron." She was an active force in the church. Once, a young priest new to the parish wanted to start a bingo game, but was too shy to bring it up. Mrs. Daley advised him to raise it at an upcoming meeting of churchwomen. When the priest said in an uncertain voice that he wanted to start bingo, Mrs. Daley shouted out, "And we all do, too!" applauding, and carrying along the other women in the group. In addition to her work at Nativity of Our Lord, Mrs. Daley was a committed suffragist — not a usual cause for women in Bridgeport — and even took her son along to marches in support of the franchise for women. It is a measure of how formidable a force Lillian Daley was that a spectator would recall that as the Daley family walked by, a neighbor pronounced with dark Irish humor, "Here they come now, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost!" Daley remained close to his mother her entire life, never moving more than a block away. Years later, as mayor, Daley would nod and wipe a tear from his eye when a women's float at a Chicago Saint Patrick's Day parade waved a banner saying, "The Mayor's Mother Was a Suffragette!"

Mrs. Daley had high hopes that her only son would end up somewhere better than the stockyards or a South Side sheet-metal union hall. She always dressed Daley more formally than his contemporaries, in suits with neckties, which made him look like a little adult — an extravagance made easier by the fact that the family had only one child to clothe. Young Daley often sported a handkerchief and he was, according to one family friend, the only child in Bridgeport at the time who owned pajamas. Whether it came from his parents or from somewhere within, Daley had a strong work ethic from a very young age. His first childhood job was selling newspapers at the corner of 35th and Wallace. Daley also made the rounds of the city's streetcars, riding to the end of the line as he walked up and down the aisle selling papers. These early jobs provided Daley with spending money, but they also trained him for his future career. "I think selling newspapers is a good thing for kids," Daley would say later. "They learn how to handle themselves with people."

Daley also worked Saturday mornings, starting at 7:00, running up and down stairs to make deliveries for a peddler who sold vegetables door-to-door from a horse-drawn wagon. Bridgeport was a neighborhood in which many parents expected nothing more of their children than for them to match their own modest achievements. Lillian Daley, however, always made it clear she wanted more. This pressure to succeed was a constant in Daley's life as long as his mother lived. Shortly before her death, after Daley won the Democratic nomination for the powerful post of Cook County sheriff, Lillian Daley made it clear that she was unimpressed. "I didn't raise my son to be a policeman," she told a friend. She also had another reason for opposing his run for sheriff. Gilbert Graham, a priest and a friend of the family, recalls that she complained to her son: "You're going to have to put people to death." Earl Bush, Daley's longtime press secretary, suspects Mrs. Daley had an entirely different career path in mind for her only child. "I don't think [Mrs. Daley] naturally thought of her son as being a politician," says Bush. "I think she would have preferred him to become a priest."

Daley attended parochial school at Nativity, where he became an altar boy and stayed through graduation. In that era, the Catholic Church expected its parishioners to send their children to parochial school, and most complied. By one estimate, as many as 90 percent of Bridgeport's Catholic children attended church schools. The Daleys, like many Catholic parents, probably feared the non-Catholic world around them. The Catholic press of this era was filled with cautionary tales of Catholic parents who had entrusted their children to Protestant-dominated public schools. An article in the Irish World and American Industrial Liberator, extreme but not entirely atypical, told the tale of a ten-year-old child whipped "black and blue" in a Boston public school "for refusing to read the King James Version" of the Bible. The story all but omitted the fact that the incident had occurred fifty years earlier, but it reflected the deep mistrust many Irish-Catholic parents held for the public school system.

Daley's parochial school education emphasized the basics: reading, writing, arithmetic, and the catechism. But as much as anything he learned in the formal curriculum, his eight years there helped instill in him many of the Irish-Catholic values he would carry with him throughout his life. Parochial school education was a prolonged education in submission to authority. Daley's patronage coordinator, Matt Danaher, who grew up in Bridgeport, once told of serving as an altar boy for a monsignor at Nativity of Our Lord Church. "I said to him one morning, 'We're all set, Father,'" Danaher recalled. "He walked over, looked at the clock and said, 'It's one minute to 6.' And then he said, 'How would you like to hang for one minute.' He was always a perfectionist." And the nuns were, as countless Catholic memoirs have attested, often tyrants in habits. One chronicler of a parochial school in a parish not far from Bridgeport wrote that "children were sometimes asked to kneel on marbles, or eat soap, or scrape gum from the hallway stairs."

The curriculum at Nativity emphasized memorization, penmanship, and rote learning. The Catholic catechism drilled into Daley in religion class was, of course, the ultimate form of rote learning, reducing almost every question students could have about God or man to a memorized short answer. It was the ideal education for a young man who might find his way to a career in machine politics, where success lay in unquestioningly performing the tasks set out by powers above. But it was less helpful as training for a leader who would need to think independently and adapt himself to changing times.

In school and out, Daley absorbed his neighborhood's conservative values and flinty self-reliance. Bridgeport, with its legions of slaughterhouse workers marching off to their bloody and dangerous jobs each day, was a community dedicated to the virtues of industry. No Bridgeporter with any pride would rely on others for his daily bread: success came through constant toil and pulling oneself up by one's own bootstraps. The Catholic Church had its charities, but the overwhelming ethic in neighborhoods like Bridgeport was that except in the most dire cases of family death or illness it was an embarrassment to accept alms. "Poor people didn't look to anybody for help or assistance," observed the superintendent of Bridgeport's parochial schools in the 1930s. Mr. Dooley tells of the down-on-his-luck laborer Callaghan who nevertheless musters the strength of character to tell the Saint Vincent de Paul almsgivers to "Take ye'er charity, an' shove it down ye'er throats." If the Callaghans had things tough, it was because this earthly life was a hard one.

The pre-Vatican II Catholicism in which Daley was raised impressed on him a keen sense of man's fallen state, and of the inevitability of sin. Man had to struggle hard against the influence of evil, which could be warded off only "if one chose the path of dutifulness and care, if one made sure by doing this twice over and respecting authority, if one closed off the energies of rebellion inside oneself." It was an education that bred a wary, even skeptical view of one's fellowman — a character trait Daley would carry with him through life. "He's like a fellow who peeks in the bag to make sure the lady gave him a dozen buns," a profile of Daley in the Chicago Daily News once observed. And it was an environment that left Daley with a lifelong skepticism of idealists of all kinds — whether they were reformers working to clean up machine politics or civil rights activists hoping to change hearts and minds on the question of race.

These utopians all proceeded from an unduly optimistic vision of man's perfectibility. "Look at the Lord's Disciples," Daley would later say in response to a charge of corruption in City Hall. "One denied Him, one doubted Him, one betrayed Him. If our Lord couldn't have perfection, how are you going to have it in city government?"


Jump to: 1 (Chicago) | 2 (The Neighborhood) | 3 (Irish Immigration)
4 (Daley's Childhood) | 5 (Daley's Education) | 6 (The Athletic Club)
7 (Racism) | 8 (Irish Politics) | 9 (Daley's Early Political Career)

Copyright © 2000 by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of Click here for ordering information for "American Pharaoh" at