Chicago politics is a rough-and-tumble game. There’s seldom any room for tears. But Chicago aldermen made room Tuesday as they honored a beloved colleague: Ald. JoAnn Thompson (16th).
Thompson overcame homelessness and alcoholism to win a City Council seat she used to become a champion for her impoverished Englewood community. She died Feb. 9 at the age of 59.
On Tuesday, the City Council met in special session to honor the life of a woman whose smile could light a room and whose heart and spirit tried to lift an entire community.
“Once broken and down on her luck, she refused to be deterred. Setbacks and hard times did not stand in her way. Failure would not have the final say,” said Ald. Edward Burke (14th), chairman of the City Council’s Finance Committee.
“Because of her own struggles, she was inspired to work tirelessly for her community. Because of her setbacks, she was guided by a sense of compassion and a desire to help.”
Ald. Carrie Austin (34th) choked back tears as she talked about the bond she forged with Thompson, who announced to Austin on the day she arrived at City Hall that the good Lord had designated Austin to be her mentor.
“A friend is a present from God. . . .The relationship doesn’t really work unless the people are willing to accept kindnesses and weaknesses. JoAnn accepted my good, my bad and my ugly. And to just accept that as a friend — you don’t get that often,” Austin said, her voice breaking.
“Feisty? Y’all don’t know the half of it. Feisty isn’t a good word for her. Compassionate is her word. The words she would give to everybody she would meet in the 16th Ward. She gave so much of herself to the people that she loved the most. . . . Will she be missed? More than missed. Because we don’t get many friends in life. We’re all here as colleagues. But everybody really isn’t your friend. And I’m so grateful that she was mine.”
An emotional Mayor Rahm Emanuel talked about the Whole Foods that he and Thompson helped lure to an impoverished community with precious few shopping choices and about the senior citizen center that will now be renamed in Thompson’s honor.
“Every time I saw her, she’d put her arm right between mine, slow me up, put that smile on me, that twinkle in her eyes, that smoothness in her voice and, before we had cut that ribbon, she had something else she had taken out of my pockets. More money. I always told her, `Jo, just don’t look at me because you know there’s a `yes’ at the end of it,’ ” the mayor said.
“If you want to see her true marvel, go to Englewood and see the change that is happening because of Jo. The reason Jo fought so hard for that grocery store was so it would serve as a beacon of hope and a sign that Englewood would never be passed over again.”
Emanuel is fighting for his political life in an April 7 runoff against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia that’s likely to be decided by the African-American vote.
The mayor said it’s up to him and the City Council to honor Thompson’s memory by “taking up her mission to open up more doors of opportunity for the children and families of Englewood.”
Ald. Michelle Harris (8th) said Thompson’s personality was so “infectious,” she simply would not allow her friends and colleagues to “wallow in self-pity.”
If she could survive a period of being homeless in the early 1990s and overcome alcoholism after her husband died, those she loved could overcome their problems as well, she would say.
“She was my friend. She was kind to me. She was so thoughtful. No matter what was going on in her life, she took the time out to give what you needed. She was compassionate. She was understanding. She became my sister,” Harris said, choking back tears.
“She is not here today. But she’s my angel. She is sitting right here on my shoulder. Lorraine [Dixon, Harris predecessor] is on the other side. She’s gonna help me through my struggles, through my journeys and through my problems.”
Mayor Rahm Emanuel escorts the grandchildren of Ald. JoAnn Thompson (16th) to their seats prior to Tuesday’s special City Council meeting to memorialize Thompson. City Clerk Susana Mendoza (right] is hugging Thompson’s granddaughter. | Fran Spielman/Sun-Times