It was a classic scene inside the gray fortress.
John Stroger sat up high on a shoeshine stand at the County Building, holding court like a potentate on a throne. His office controlled the purse strings for the public health care system, the Medical Examiner and the forest preserves — and lots and lots of patronage jobs in a county second only to Los Angeles County as the most densely populated in the nation.
People swirled through the doors, saying hello and exchanging choice tidbits of gossip and news as they strode past the county board president.
But what Stroger didn’t know was that some of those people weren’t greeting him.
They were saying hi to Clyde Black, who in a 35-year career operating a shoeshine stand became the unofficial greeter of Chicago’s dual City Hall-County Building.
Stroger “would come there all the time because he thought people were waving at him,” said Mr. Black’s friend, Rosemary Paige. “But they were actually waving at Clyde. He (Stroger) thought he was getting a lot of respect.”
A mourner at Mr. Black’s service recalled witnessing all the hellos directed at the shoeshine man, who died of lung cancer Dec. 28 at St. Bernard Hospital. He was 60 years old.
He “served in City Hall longer than Mayor Daley,” said William J. Borah, a judge with the Illinois Human Rights Commission, who in a written tribute called him a counselor and confidante.
He could sense whether a customer wanted to shoot the breeze or read the newspapers he provided. He might even help them sort out a problem with a Bible verse or a kind word.
“He would talk about any subject, but if you were maybe looking a little sad or there was something on your mind, he would ask you ‘What’s the matter?’ ’’ said Brian Hopkins, chief of staff for County Commissioner John P. Daley, “And if you wanted to talk about something, you could open up to him. He was trustworthy.”
Some officials used him as a one-man opinion poll. “His stand was a barometer — when things were bad, they weren’t getting shoeshines,” said County Commissioner Larry Suffredin.
Chance meetings at the stand probably helped get things done, Hopkins said. “Sometimes there’d be a wait. There’d be two or three guys in line, and a conversation would start up,” he said. “You never knew what important meeting would happen.”
“He probably knew more politicans and lawyers than other lawyers and politicians,” said Larry R. Rogers, Jr., a commissioner of the Cook County Board of Review.
Mr. Black and Mayor Richard M. Daley chatted about the White Sox. “We’re on very good terms,” he told the Sun-Times in 2007. “ As for Stroger, the county executive was said to have helped him set up the shoeshine stand.
Mr. Black was born in Pompano Beach, Fla., the sixth of 13 brothers and sisters. He served in the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam era and moved to Chicago in 1978, where he had relatives. He wound up living at 63rd and Normal, said Stevie Fulton, who is running the shoeshine stand.
“He was on his way to apply for a job at the CTA but he met someone who was shining shoes, and [that entrepreneur] said, ‘Well, I need some help today—why don’t you help me out?’ ” said Hopkins. “He never made it to the CTA.”
Mr. Black always arrived for work sporting a crisp bow tie. He read several newspapers each morning so he could discuss the news with customers, Suffredin said.
The women of City Hall and the County Building received extra warm greetings from the flirtatious Mr. Black, Paige said. “He would say, ‘Hey, honey, you know you’re lookin’ good today.’ ”
A county resolution drafted to honor him said that “in losing Mr. Black, we have lost a true American entrepreneur who was a shining example of the adage ‘Whatever you do, do it well.’ ’’
He had pride, Borah said: “Pride in himself, with his uniform made up of spit-shined shoes, a gray smock, white shirt, and bow tie. Pride in his work, as every person who stepped down from his stand had the bright shoes of a true professional, because of the skill of a true professional.”
That pride extended to tips. If someone tried to give him a few quarters, “He said ‘I’m not doing laundry today. I don’t need quarters,’ ’’ Paige said. “They would know better next time.’’
He charged $4 for shoes; $5 for boots. “A proper shoeshine should take five to 10 minutes, tops,” he told the Sun-Times. “Conversation costs. You pay for conversation.”
“When people needed to borrow money at City Hall, they would always go to the shine man if they needed something till payday,” Paige said. And if they didn’t pay up — even the women who twinkled at him — “he would cut them loose,” she said.
Mr. Black enjoyed the voices of Gladys Knight and Whitney Houston. An excellent soul food cook, he made his own fried chicken, ribs, macaroni and cheese, greens and peach cobbler.
He credited his older brother, Marion, with helping him to curb his drinking years ago. “He taught me to treat people the way you would like to be treated,” Fulton said. Mr. Black is survived by his sons, Erick and Samuel; his mother, Loretta Black; his sisters, Gloria Mash, Judith Burroughs, Christa Williams, Deidra Black and Bridget Burose; his brothers, Kevin and Patrick, and three grandchildren. Services were held.