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Donald Lee Totten, former chair of Cook County Republican Party, dies

Donald Totten in 2005. | Sun-Times file photo

If you were new to Schaumburg — beginning in the mid-1960s — there was a good chance a basket filled with cookies, candies and a handy local directory would land on your doorstep.

It was how Donald Totten and his Schaumburg Township Republicans welcomed people to the neighborhood and helped make the proud conservative a dominant figure in suburban Cook County, regional and national politics for decades. Sometimes Mr. Totten, the township’s committeeman, would take the baskets in person.

“Human nature being what it is, that is a fabulous way to build networks that in the end help toward winning elections,” said Joseph Morris, a Chicago lawyer and longtime friend of Mr. Totten’s.

Mr. Totten, 86, who most recently lived in Elgin, died April 2, in North Carolina, where two of his three children live, family said.

Mr. Totten was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but grew up in New Jersey. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Notre Dame. He married Joyce Anderson, a woman he’d met at high school in New Jersey. She died last year. The couple had been married for 63 years.

They had four children. Their first, Donna, died at a young age of complications from leukemia.

“Losing a child is tough on any parent, and that was his firstborn,” said daughter Kathy Weber, 58, who lives in Cornelius, N.C.

Mr. Totten spent several years working as an engineer, but politics — informed by a love of the world’s great thinkers stretching back to Ancient Greece — soon became central in his life.

“He was driven by the passion of his beliefs,” Weber said.

At an Illinois Republican State Senate dinner are (l. to r.) Lyn Nofziger, President Reagan’s assistant for political affairs, then-state Sen. Donald L. Totten (R-Hoffman Estates) and then-Gov. Jim Thompson. | Sun-Times file photo
At an Illinois Republican State Senate dinner are (l. to r.) Lyn Nofziger, President Reagan’s assistant for political affairs, then-state Sen. Donald L. Totten (R-Hoffman Estates) and then-Gov. Jim Thompson. | Sun-Times file photo

He was not, his daughter said, a natural public speaker. And he suffered for much of his life from Bell’s palsy, a condition that made the left side of his face droop.

“So he was a little gruff and a little foreboding,” said his longtime friend, Chris Robling, 63, who met Mr. Totten in the early 1980s when Robling was working as a political consultant.

Robling said he was actually a man who was “thoughtful, perhaps to a fault.”

“He was one of the greatest listeners I’ve ever seen in politics,” Robling said. “He was dying to hear people’s stories.”

Mr. Totten would go on to serve in both the Illinois House and the Senate. He was also chairman of Cook County Republican Party. In 1982, he ran unsuccessfully, on the Republican side, for lieutenant governor, losing to the eventual governor, George Ryan.

“Between logic, charm and wit, he would persuade you to do what he wanted to do,” Morris said. “And this eventually brought him to the attention of Ronald Reagan.”

Mr. Totten became the Illinois and midwest director of Reagan’s “insurgent” 1976 campaign, trying to unseat the incumbent Republican, President Gerald Ford.

Dorothy Ogilvie, Donald Totten and Ronald Reagan. | Sun-Times file photo
Dorothy Ogilvie, Donald Totten and Ronald Reagan. | Sun-Times file photo

“He was part of the grassroots army that thought the [President Richard] Nixon-Ford Administration had strayed too far into big government and too close to the Soviet Union through detente and the Panama Canal treaties,” said Robling, describing Mr. Totten’s move as “an enormous risk.”

Mr. Totten remained loyal to Reagan four years later, when he eventually won the nomination and the White House.

“Don Totten sided with the insurgency, and it was a very brave thing to do,” said Morris, who served as an assistant attorney general for all eight years of the Reagan presidency.

Said Robling: “He made conservatism not just respectable but actionable. He presented a really coherent and comprehensive vision for government in Illinois.”

In addition to his daughter Kathy, survivors include sister Barbara Hellenack; daughter Diane Faldstein; son Robert Totten; seven grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

Funeral arrangements were pending.