Classic Royko: The Leon Despres Stomp

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Group with 5th ward alderman and activist Leon Despres on bikes riding in protest of cutting down trees near 50th and the Lake. | Sun-Times archives

Editor’s note: The Sun-Times Editorial Board asked all the candidates for alderman this year to name an alderman from the past or present who inspired them. The alderman they named most was Leon Despres, who served in the Chicago City Council from 1955 to 1975. For years, Despres was the sole voice of independence in a Council owned by Mayor Richard J. Daley. This column was included in Mike Royko’s first collection, “Up Against It,” published in 1967.

The City Council met for one hour and 45 minutes Thursday and devoted one hour and 30 minutes to the joyous sport of telling off Ald. Leon Despres, an independent.

Veteran observers say this is not a record for telling off Despres. But it is considered one of the best council performances in months.


Letting Despres have it good is one of the most popular sports among aldermen. It ranks only behind collecting valuable hellos and nods from the mayor.

The fun was delayed a few minutes while the chaplain offered a prayer of thanks for the city’s blessings, which he said included the mayor and the aldermen.

Then, after approving a resolution praising a baseball announcer for all he has done, the council got down to business.

Ald. Joe Burke, a noted South Side wake-goer, submitted the names of Mayor Daley’s choices to serve on the city’s junior college board.

Despres promptly objected to one of the prospective board members, a real estate man. He said he likes the man but doesn’t like the segregated clubs he belongs to.

Besides, Despres said, the real estate man is too chummy with the mayor.

Before Despres could finish, Ald. Thomas Keane said Despres was wandering from the business at hand. Mayor Daley agreed and told Despres to stop wandering.

“I’m being stifled,” cried Despres.

The mayor asked the council to vote on whether Despres was being stifled. They voted that he was not. “I am, too,” said Despres. So they again voted that he was not. Despres sat down.

Ald. James Murray, Ald. Matthew Danaher and Ald. Thomas Rosenberg made speeches saying that Despres was all wrong.

Ald. Claude Holman jumped up and screamed.

The highlights of his scream follow:

“Warped, perverted logic … 14-carat mudslinging … a hypocrite.”

While Holman panted, Ald. Jack Sperling said that Despres’ comments were not “cogent or germane.” Several aldermen appeared to understand.

Ald. Burke, who started the outburst, said a few more words that he had just thought of and deferred to Ald. Keane, who urged his fellow aldermen to recall the Ten Commandments. He said he thought Despres might be violating one or more of them.

Despres, a longtime admirer of Moses, appeared hurt by this. He leaped to his feet and asked to be heard.

Mayor Daley looked down at him and grinned. “Before you speak, alderman, I would like to introduce an honored guest.”

Everyone looked surprised because guests are not introduced during debates.

“…I would like to introduce one of the 5th Ward’s most outstanding citizens — Mrs. Leon Despres.”

While Ald. Despres’ jaw dropped, his startled wife stood up in the visitors’ section. The aldermen applauded. Then they turned and looked at the mayor.

For a moment the mayor kept a straight face. Then he collapsed into laughter. The aldermen caught the clever prank. They laughed. Ald. Despres and his wife flushed.

“Go ahead, alderman,” the mayor said, with a last gasp of laughter.

Despres objected to still another junior college appointee because the council had not questioned the man about his views on education.

Ald. Murray, Danaher and Rosenberg gave talks on Despres’ lack of logic and Ald. Holman again screamed.

The highlights of his second scream follow:

“Hypocrite…compounding his hypocrisy…he is to be deplored….”

Before the meeting ended, Holman got in one more scream, Ald. Burke delivered a lengthy mumble and Ald. Joe Krska unveiled his oratorical ability, saying:

“Mr. Mayor, I haven’t seen a man yet that you have appointed that I wasn’t in favor of as long as your name is on it.

“Anytime you say a man is OK with you, he is OK with me.”

The mayor bestowed a smile upon him and Krska got a dreamy look.

The debates having ended, the issue was put to a vote.

The disputed appointments squeaked past Despres 44 to 1.

A betting man figured it might turn out that way.

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