Nancy de Grazia dies at 79; helped Dan Walker become governor

SHARE Nancy de Grazia dies at 79; helped Dan Walker become governor

Nancy de Grazia | Provided photo

Nancy Shlaes de Grazia helped buck the system.

She worked for Dan Walker, a onetime maverick who drummed up support for a successful 1972 bid for governor by walking 1,197 miles across Illinois.

Mrs. de Grazia served as executive director of his campaign, supervising hundreds of volunteers. She weathered five months when there was so little cash, she did without a salary, she said in a 2008 oral history shared with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. One night, Walker called her from the campaign office to say he had no money to get home.

Ever resourceful, she had an idea. “Well,” she told him, “there’s a Coke machine, and the key is in my desk. You can get probably five dollars out of there.”

After Walker’s election, she worked as his liaison to banking and regulatory agencies and also managed the governor’s mansion, flying on state planes from Meigs Field to Springfield three days a week.

‘‘Nancy was one of those women who could do everything,” said former Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan, who met her in 1970, when they worked on Democrat Adlai Stevenson III’s successful run for Senate. “She was ahead of her time, and I think if she were born in these days, she’d be a prominent attorney or doctor. She was an incredibly gifted person at getting things done, and getting people together.”

In 1977, she married Victor R. de Grazia, Walker’s campaign director and deputy governor. He was hailed by some as a “political genius” after Walker’s win. Others were less flattering. Columnist Mike Royko dubbed him “Walker’s chief wheeler-dealer, back-stabber and hatcher of dark plots.” Her husband didn’t care — he said his job was to take flak for the governor.

In contrast to her husband, she was a consensus builder. “It was hard to tell when she didn’t like you. She was gracious in the extreme,” said her son, Noah Shlaes.

Mrs. de Grazia, 79, died on Oct. 6 at Evanston Hospital after a 26-year struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

She grew up Nancy Shiman in Maplewood, New Jersey, where her father owned a jewelry company. “For decades, when someone would buy a Shiman locket, the picture in the locket was my mother” as a child, her son said.

When her father became involved with a fundraiser featuring folk legend Woody Guthrie, she wound up baby-sitting his son, Arlo, who went on to his own successful musical career.

Eventually, she relocated to the Midwest, attending the University of Chicago and moving in Hyde Park political circles. Mrs. deGrazia worked on Adlai Stevenson II’s 1956 presidential campaign and married her first husband, developer Jared Shlaes. She served as executive director of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference, her family said.

In 1959, after graduating from the university, she went to work for the Independent Democratic Federation, where she met Walker, the group’s chair, she said in the oral history. Mrs. de Grazia also ran a Hyde Park garden fair and co-managed Harper Court shopping plaza, relatives said.

Frustration over Chicago’s patronage politics motivated her to back Walker’s populist run for office. “You couldn’t get in if you weren’t related,” she told Mark DePue, of the Lincoln Library. “Nobody thought for himself. The patronage was abusive.”

On his walk from Illinois’ southern tip to its northern border, Walker sometimes wore a shirt with his name silk-screened on the back, said Noah Shlaes, who remembers his mother lending her stove to prep the letters of his name. “We had to bake those things in the oven in our house so the colors wouldn’t run off in the rain,” he said. Mrs. de Grazia drafted Noah and her daughters, Amity and Jane, to stuff envelopes for Walker.

Walker ended up in jail after a 1987 conviction on bank fraud and perjury. Still, she told the Lincoln Library, she hoped his political career would be remembered for making government more representative than in the Machine era.

Later in life, she worked on health care reforms as a regional director of the American Hospital Association.

In the last eight years — during which Mrs. de Grazia needed round-the-clock care — her organizational powers remained. “We had a world of caregivers, and my mom ended up teaching many women how to cook” by working next to them in the kitchen, or directing them from her chair, said her daughter, Jane Shlaes. Beef brisket was her specialty. “She delighted them with her humor and positive outlook.”

Mrs. de Grazia is also survived by her stepchildren, Bruce, Lee, Janet, Daniel and Nancy; 18 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. A private memorial is planned.

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