Nicholas Blase, who served as mayor of Niles for nearly 50 years, has died. He was 91.
Blase resigned from office in 2008 after he was arrested on federal corruption charges. He was implicated in a kickback scheme and served 10 months in federal prison. He’s also remembered for his dedication to Niles.
“He always looked out for his town,” said Sue Leonis, who worked for Gov. Jim Edgar as a liaison to local mayors.
Leonis said she remembers Blase’s ability to work across party lines, always in the interest of Niles residents. Though Blase served as Maine Township Democratic committeeman, Leonis said he worked well with Republicans to improve Niles by getting crucial state funding for local projects.
Other than his bipartisanship, Leonis said Blase took her “under his wing” and helped her learn about local government.
“It’s sad that his legacy went down for prison time, because he didn’t deserve that. He did a lot for his town.”
Blase pleaded guilty to accepting kickbacks in exchange for driving business to a friend’s insurance company. He served 10 months in federal prison and completed his sentence at a Chicago halfway house and on home confinement. His sentence ended in March 2011.
Before completing his prison sentence, Blase donated $750,000 to public schools in Niles and apologized in court.
Blase moved from Chicago to Niles in 1959. The lawyer first ran for mayor in 1961, defeating 20-year incumbent Frank Stankowicz.
Current Mayor Andrew Przybylo was appointed to the village board by Blase in 1989. Przybylo remembers Blase for his leadership and their “spirited talks” at local restaurants after village meetings.
Przybylo said even though Blase committed a crime, current Niles residents still hold him in high regard.
“Niles residents know that no one’s perfect,” Przybylo said. “He did something that wasn’t right, but he paid his debts, and his accomplishments far outweigh his transgression.”
Niles Trustee and former police chief Dean Strzelecki served on the police force starting in 1975 and worked closely with Blase. Strzelecki said Blase was the type of mayor who would listen to, and talk to, anybody. Even though Blase worked at a law office during the day, he would never miss an opportunity to listen to a resident.
“He would listen to employees at any level. As I went through the ranks in the police department, you could still talk to him.”
Strzelecki said Blase’s emphasis on putting residents’ needs first and his focus on community service filtered down to every level of local government.
Blase was “artful” in the way he secured essential services for residents, like a free bus system, while keeping taxes low, Strzelecki said.
Strzelecki attributed his interest in politics to Blase, saying he learned how to treat people well and take care of the village.
“He lived and breathed Niles,” Strzelecki said. “He treated his employees like gold, and he treated his trustees like gold.”