Political prof, Washington strategist William Grimshaw dies at 77

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Bill Grimshaw, a professor whose grasp of urban politics helped Harold Washington become the city’s first black mayor, has died. | Photo courtesy of Antonio Dickey

Bill Grimshaw’s dining room table became a war room where campaign strategy was plotted for Harold Washington’s historic bid to become mayor of Chicago.

Mr. Grimshaw, a political science professor, was half of one of Hyde Park’s most prominent power couples. His wife and fellow strategist, Jacquelyne, went on to serve in the administration of Washington, who was elected the city’s first black mayor in 1983.

The waves created by the Grimshaws and other Washington backers helped inspire Barack Obama to come to Chicago. He and Michelle Obama wound up moving next door to the Grimshaw home at 5040 S. Greenwood, where the new Hyde Park power couple once borrowed the Grimshaw’s gracious living room to sit for a Christmas card photo.

The Grimshaws “were both instrumental in the Harold Washington campaign for mayor,” said University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor Dick W. Simpson, “and Barack Obama did come [to Chicago] because of the Harold Washington administration.”

Mr. Grimshaw died on March 30, relatives announced Monday, as they released information on his funeral arrangements. The 77-year-old had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Intuitive yet clear-eyed, “He understood that politics was somewhat of a game, a chess game,” Jacky Grimshaw said.

After Washington selected Al Raby to be his campaign manager, “We plotted out the strategy at my house,” she said. Using statistical data, the Grimshaws and other campaign workers studied precincts where voters had rejected Machine candidates. Then they targeted those areas with volunteers, campaign literature and appearances by Washington.

“He was kind of like the brains. His role was to be the thinker and writer,” Jacky Grimshaw said of her husband. “I was the executor.”

He admired his wife and supported her in more than campaign strategy, said another neighbor, Paula Wolff, director of the Illinois Justice Project. He was an equal partner in child care, said Wolff, who often saw him toting their young son, Chris, to campaign headquarters.

After studying political science at the University of Chicago, he taught for 30 years at the Illinois Institute of Technology and was a visiting associate professor at the University of Chicago. His 1995 book, “Bitter Fruit: Black Politics and the Chicago Machine, 1931-1991,” is “still the classic in the field,” said Simpson, former alderman of the 44th Ward.

“Bill made a significant contribution to the literature of political science by amplifying reforms, and redefining reforms, and introducing the term ‘redistributive reform,’ ” political strategist Don Rose said. “He was talking about Harold — a fairer distribution of jobs and income, in government and services.”

Alton Miller, former press secretary to Mayor Washington, said: “The mayor had the highest regard and respect for Bill Grimshaw — he knew him as an intellectual equal, whose insights and passion for the details of social and political change in Chicago put him in the mayor’s extended family way before he also played a role in the Kitchen Cabinet. After the mayor’s death, Grimshaw remained important to an understanding of the meaning of Harold Washington — and where do we go from here . . .

“Jacky was one of few people who never needed an appointment to see the mayor,” Miller said. “They were family friends — very close. For most of her life she was like a daughter to him, and later, of course, a trusted adviser. Between them, the two Grimshaws added up to a half dozen political and personal assets.”

Young Bill grew up near Belmont and Clifton, the son of factory worker Elmer Grimshaw and Violet Teppo Grimshaw, a daughter of Finnish immigrants. He remembered visiting his mother’s family farm in Michigan, where his grandmother told him — in Finnish — to make sure he didn’t get in the way of the work. He attended Lane Tech and Lake View High Schools, but was so bored he dropped out, said his daughter, Kim Grimshaw Bolton.

He did a stint in the Army, serving in France. Returning to Chicago, he studied at Wright Junior College. In 1962, he entered the University of Chicago, where he earned a political science degree.

He met Jacky Lane, a Chicagoan and student at Marquette University, when they both worked at Chicago’s main post office. Often, they visited Old Town, which was becoming the epicenter of Midwest counterculture. “We would hang out with the hippies,” who didn’t hassle them about being an interracial couple, Jacky Grimshaw said. They married in 1964.

Bill Grimshaw with his son, Chris. | Family photo

Bill Grimshaw with his son, Chris. | Family photo

They didn’t face much trouble in Chicago, except for “strong stares,” she said. They drew more attention when they visited the Bahamas after the island nation gained its independence from England in 1973. There, Jacky Grimshaw said, black men would say to her: “ ‘What are you doing with that white man?’ ”

In 1973, the couple paid $35,000 for their 17-room house on Greenwood.

When they moved in, Bill Grimshaw told the Chicago Sun-Times, “the area was filled with people like us. Librarians, schoolteachers, social workers and do-gooders of one sort or another.” By the time they put it on the market in 2009, their neighbors had included attorney James Montgomery, ambassador Jewel Lafontant-Mankarious, and Valerie Jarrett, now a senior Obama adviser.

Even before Secret Service agents were posted next door, the Grimshaws didn’t have much trouble with security. Their son admired the Rottweilers featured in the movie “The Omen,” so Mr. Grimshaw decided to breed the dogs, his wife said. At one point, they had about half a ton of dogs in the house: seven adult Rotties. He had planned to sell them but got so attached, “he couldn’t bring himself to,” she said. Eventually, they did find homes for the dogs, except the matriarch, Jasper, and her strongest puppy, Bruiser. The Grimshaws still have their cremated ashes.

He enjoyed Haagen-Dazs Rocky Road ice cream and the writing of Raymond Chandler and Elmore Leonard. He liked talking politics at Valois restaurant.

Mr. Grimshaw looked forward to his warm-weather breaks, when he didn’t teach. Other kids went to summer camp, but for his son, Chris, “He was summer camp.” Mr. Grimshaw took his son to the Wisconsin Dells.

“He taught me how to camp, how to put up a tent, how to put out a canoe,” Chris Grimshaw said. “We’d play baseball in the yard, play basketball in the gym at the university. Go to Cubs games. Play baseball on the midway at the University of Chicago. My house was the house everybody hung out at, I think in large part because they liked hanging out with my dad.”

In addition to his wife, daughter and son, Mr. Grimshaw is survived by a brother, Alan, and four grandchildren. A celebration of his life is planned at 10:30 a.m. May 28 at the Chicago Theological Seminary, 1407 E. 60th St.

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