Byrne celebrated as feisty, trailblazing mayor | WBEZ
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Mayor Byrne remembered as feisty, trailblazer

Chicago said goodbye Monday to Jane Byrne, its first and only female mayor. Byrne was celebrated for her “feisty” personality and her “trailblazing” career in the mayor’s office.

Her funeral was held at the St. Vincent de Paul Church in Lincoln Park - the same parish her parents attended in the late 1890s. Byrne’s mother also attended grammar school there. A steady stream of friends, family members, politicos and regular Chicagoans attended her visitation and funeral Monday - including Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“She led our city in a way that captures the true spirit of Chicago: dogged, determined and dignified,” Emanuel said. “As the first woman to lead not just our city, but any major American city, Jane Byrne will always have a special place in the history books

The morning began with a traditional visitation at 9 am sharp. Jane Byrne lay peacefully inside an open casket with the Chicago flag laid delicately on top. The sun snuck in through the ornate stained glass windows of the church and made her blonde hair shine.

For the most part, the mood was more jovial than somber: Old friends and colleagues greeted each other in more of the manner of a holiday party. Many, like Angel Correa, sported Byrne’s old campaign buttons.

Correa said he campaigned hard for Byrne back in the early 1980s -- even as he clocked hours as a circulation manager at the Chicago Tribune.

“And I’ll tell you one thing,” he said, while clutching a collage of old pictures of Mayor Byrne. “I used to take her literature and actually stuff it in the Tribune papers. If they would have found that out, I probably would [have] got canned!”

Correa later went on to serve as the deputy commissioner of neighborhoods for Mayor Byrne.

“Believe me when I tell you: A very feisty lady, very bossy, but a very, very good, warm person with a good heart.”

That feistiness was a constant theme throughout the funeral mass -- especially in the homily from Monsignor Kenneth Velo.

“I remember walking into her room one day. She was peering out her window to the east, looking toward the lake. She didn’t know I was there. I said Jane! She looked back and said “you scared the hell out of me! And I said, good!”

Velo spoke both of Byrne’s accomplishments and her trials: like her vision for the museum campus, or the death of her first husband soon after the birth of their only child Kathy.

“Was she perfect? Are you? Am I? Did she have faults? Sure. Don’t you? Don’t I? But she loved the city of Chicago. And she was proud that she was mayor of the city of Chicago,” Velo said.

According to Velo, Byrne also proudly planned this mass.

Her great-grand nieces read the petitions and prayers, and her only grandson, Willy, read one of her favorite quotes from Senator Robert Kennedy.

But some of deepest emotion and reflection came from Byrne’s daughter, Kathy.

“My mother was dragon slaying, problem solving, 24/7 guardian angel,” Byrne said.

Byrne said she often thinks about how life would have been if her dad had survived - she says her mom would have likely lived as a socialite on the North shore. But instead, Byrne said her mom fought for her independence. Back then, women weren’t allowed to have their own credit accounts. When her dad died, Byrne says her mom had to fight tooth and nail at Saks Fifth Avenue to get that credit back -- a hurtful and humiliating experience that came to back to Byrne when she lived in Chicago’s housing projects.

“When my mom spoke to the mothers in Cabrini. And she heard how some of the merchants in the area refused their food stamps and called them names, called them worthless [and] did this in front of their children. My mother could share what they felt,” she said.

And Byrne says her mother loved every minute of her time as mayor.

“She was a great lady. And I’ll never know anyone like her.”

As Byrne’s family carried her casket into the brisk Chicago winds - another fitting - but unplanned - theme appeared: Snow.

It was a snowfall in 1979 that swept Mayor Byrne into office. So it only seemed fitting that snowflakes fell softly on the Chicago flag that covered her coffin.

Lauren Chooljian is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @laurenchooljian

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