A self-described “poor Polish kid” from Pittsburgh, Jerry Roper said Chicago had to re-invent itself because it was no longer hog butcher to the world.
He tried to remake it as president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce from 1993 to 2013.
Prior to that, he was president of the Chicago Convention and Visitors Bureau, now known as Choose Chicago.
For decades, he was a champion of almost every major business and tourism initiative in the city.
The South Loop resident, who started out his business career as a desk clerk at Pittsburgh’s William Penn hotel, died Sunday at Glenbrook Hospital after a seven-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 74.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who delighted Mr. Roper by repealing the head tax, hailed him as a “tremendous partner.”
“Jerry understood that entrepreneurs and small businesses form the backbone of a vibrant and growing economy for Chicagoland. His work was essential and his contributions to our economic vibrancy will be long lasting,” Emanuel said in a statement.
A longtime proponent of a Chicago casino, Mr. Roper once traveled to Montreal to try to persuade Cirque du Soleil to establish a Chicago theater to help anchor a city casino, said his friend, Bill Hood, a former American Airlines executive who accompanied him on the trip.
Mr. Roper supported the Ricketts family’s plan to make over Wrigley Field, as well as expansion at O’Hare Airport. He welcomed Wal-Mart to Chicago. He backed the successful bid for Boeing and a pitch for a Chicago Olympics that fizzled at the starting line when the city failed to make the first cut among prospective hosts.
The chamber ticked off a list of Mr. Roper’s successes, including a rollback of the county sales tax; the development of a Perishable Center for flowers at O’Hare Airport; and the launch of the Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center, which led to the 1871 digital startup incubator.
His mother, Jessie, was one of 14 children and spoke fluent Polish, the language of her parents. His father, John Roper, was a butcher in Pittsburgh’s blue-collar Spring Garden neighborhood. John Roper was the equivalent of a Chicago precinct captain, getting street signs installed and clearing empty lots for kids to play ball, said Mr. Roper’s son, Jerry Roper Jr.
Mr. Roper didn’t go to college. He served in the U.S. Army and then worked his way up in the hospitality industry. He was a marketing director for Holiday Inns and for Sheraton hotels; a director of trade shows for the National Restaurant Association; and president of the Rosemont O’Hare Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“His engaging personality just propelled him right through all of his positions in leadership at the Chicagoland Chamber, which he turned into a really powerful force,” said Bob Wislow, chair of CBRE Chicago and co-founder of U.S. Equities Realty. He “really made it into a completely business-oriented organization. His focus was always what’s best for Chicago is what’s best for Chicago business.”
Mr. Roper was indefatigable, he said. When Wislow chaired the chamber, “We talked virtually every morning between a quarter to 6 and 6 o’clock. He got up talking about business, often times on his treadmill.”
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) called him a cheerleader. “There wasn’t a doubt in his mind that Chicago was going to become a great global city. Chicago needs people like that. You need that energy and optimism,” Reilly said.
If not for Mr. Roper, the $4-per-employee head tax so widely despised by the business community might never have been repealed, Reilly said.
Jim Reilly, former CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, called Mr. Roper “the heart and soul of the convention business in Chicago. He knew everybody in the industry. . . . And he pushed for labor reforms a long time before we actually got to labor reforms.”
Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez recalled going toe-to-toe with Mr. Roper during the donnybrook that stalled Wal-Mart’s entry into the Chicago market.
The City Council’s 2004 vote to approve Chicago’s first Wal-Mart in Austin ultimately gave birth to the big-box minimum wage ordinance that Mr. Roper vehemently opposed.
When then-Mayor Richard M. Daley vetoed the ordinance and made that stick by winning crossover votes, organized labor spent millions to elect a more union-friendly City Council. Mr. Roper worked to create his own fund in a failed attempt to protect the Daley crossovers.
“He really believed it wasn’t good for his folks,” Ramirez said. “They didn’t want it. And he was a loyal guy. He was friends with the mayor and stood by him. But, he wasn’t dishonest about it. He said, `Look. This is where I’m at.’ Some people avoid those difficult conversations. But I’m in the business of having difficult conversations and he was, too.”
The gregarious Mr. Roper was organized and disciplined, which business leaders appreciated. “He was noted for running very efficient meetings. They would meet about four times a year, starting at 7:30 a.m., and they rarely went past the 9 o’clock cutoff,” Hood said.
“Chicago is a better place to live and work today because of the contributions of Jerry Roper,” said Theresa E. Mintle, president and CEO of the chamber.
Mr. Roper owned a red convertible ’67 Corvair with a white top.
Broadcaster Bill Kurtis once noted that Mayor Daley said he took more photos with Jerry Roper than with the Daley family.
As for his own family, Mr. Roper also is survived by his second wife, Carol Buseman Roper, a senior marketing executive with Hyatt; a daughter, Tani Sison; a brother, Donald Andrezjwski; and two grandchildren. A private family service is planned, with a celebration of his life to come later, his son said.
Contributing: Bill Zwecker