Before Rahm: Chicago mayors, fit and unfit

September 19, 2011

"You may say I may be unfit to be mayor, but you can never say I'm an unfit mayor."              

--Rahm Emanuel

Triathlete Rahm is probably the most physically-fit mayor that Chicago has ever had. Just for fun, let's take a look at the last century of his predecessors, and see how they measure up.

In 1911 Fred Busse was completing his single term as mayor. Busse had been a saloon-keeper and was built along the lines of a beer keg--he was fondly known as Fat Freddie. He died at 48.

Busse was succeeded by Carter Harrison Jr., returning for a fifth term on the fifth floor of City Hall. I never thought of Harrison as portly, until I ran across the accompanying picture. In any case, Harrison lived to be 93.

From 1915 to 1931 the city had three terms of William Hale Thompson, sandwiched around one term of William Emmett Dever. This picture from Thompson's first campaign shows him when he was still trim and in fighting shape, before all the political dinners expanded his waistline. As for Dever, his body-type could best be described as "chunky."

Anton Cermak became mayor in 1931, and was killed by an assassin two years later. Cermak was a few pounds heavier than he should have been. But when The Untouchables TV series did a two-parter on the Cermak shooting, the mayor was portrayed by Robert Middleton, an actor with a silhoutte resembling Jabba the Hut. That's the way Cermak is mis-remembered today.

The next two mayors were Edward Kelly and Martin Kennelly. Both of them were in reasonably good shape, so they need not concern us.

With the election of Richard J. Daley in 1955, Chicago once again had a full-figured mayor. Daley served just under 22 years, dying in office of a heart attack. He was followed by Michael Bilandic, unremarkable in either girth or accomplishment. Then came Jane Byrne, who was actually thin.

Harold Washington, elected in 1983, had been a track star in school. I recall that CPS phys-ed classes were given a poster listing his athletic record, and the students challenged to do better. By the time he became mayor, however, Washington was seriously overweight. Like Daley #1, he died in office from a heart attack.

Eugene Sawyer--same comment as Bilandic. And you already know about Richard M. Daley.

So, does a mayor or any office-holder have to be in shape? We'll close with a quotation from another politician.

In 1928 Al Smith was backing a physically-handicapped man in the campaign for New York governor. When asked whether his candidate could handle the job, Smith snapped: "A governor doesn't have to be an acrobat!"

BTW--the candidate's name was Franklin D. Roosevelt.