Former downtown Ald. Burt Natarus dies at 86 — after decades trying ‘to solve the little and big problems’
The self-proclaimed “janitor” of the bustling downtown 42nd Ward was known for a series of quirky quality-of-life crusades wagered over a 36-year tenure.
Former Ald. Burton Natarus, a colorful fixture in City Council chambers for almost four decades, has died at age 86.
The self-proclaimed “janitor” of the bustling downtown 42nd Ward was known for a series of quirky quality-of-life crusades waged over a 36-year tenure, tackling everything from loud motorcycles, street musicians and blaring car radios to valet parking and tacky store advertising on North Michigan Avenue
“I don’t think people make fun of my ideas. Certain members of the press do, because they don’t understand most of our work as aldermen deals with nitty-gritty, housekeeping functions,” Mr. Natarus, who also championed the city’s ban on cellphones while driving, once told the Chicago Sun-Times.
“I try to solve the little and big problems. Unfortunately, many of the little problems, because they’re rather bizarre, get most of the publicity.”
One of those little problems Mr. Natarus is perhaps best remembered for tackling is that of horse-drawn carriages and the waste they brought to streets in his downtown and Near North Side ward. He sponsored an ordinance in the early 1980s that would’ve required those horses (now banned in the city beginning next year) to wear diapers — not that he’d take the credit for it.
“Let’s get that straight,” Mr. Natarus told the Sun-Times on his way out of office in 2007. “That was [former Mayor] Jane Byrne’s ordinance. I had nothing to do with that,” he protested.
Mr. Natarus was born and raised in Wausau, Wisconsin, earning undergraduate and law degrees at the University of Wisconsin before studying government at Harvard, according to his family. He also served in the U.S. Army and the Army Reserves.
The future alderman settled on the Near North Side in 1960 and taught government classes at Loyola University before embarking on his City Council career in 1971 with the first of nine consecutive winning elections.
Mr. Natarus was a protege of longtime Cook County Board President George W. Dunne, who also served as the county’s Democratic Party chairman. Like Dunne, Mr. Natarus supported Mayor Harold Washington, one of only a handful of white aldermen to do so when Washington was elected the city’s first African American mayor in 1983.
In 1986, then Ald. Natarus famously cried openly while casting the 26th and deciding vote that gave Chicago a record property tax increase.
The next year, Mr. Natarus played a key role in helping to elect fellow Ald. Eugene Sawyer acting mayor during the marathon City Council meeting that followed Washington’s death.
“He’s the one who made sure we didn’t go home that night. . . . If it wasn’t for him, Rich Daley might be County Board president today,” former Ald. Richard Mell (33rd) said then.
In 2005, during one of his trademark, impassioned speeches on the City Council floor — this time railing against the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq — Mr. Natarus suffered a heart attack. He survived the ordeal, coming to and trying even trying to go back to work minutes after collapsing. He was hospitalized and later had a pacemaker installed.
The longtime alderman was unseated by current Ald. Brendan Reilly in 2007.
“I’m not glad I lost because I had a lot of things I wanted to do — like building two schools,” Mr. Natarus said then. “But now that I’m out, I have to learn to do other things. I have a lot of things in mind. And I feel real good. I really do. I’m much more relaxed. I’ve got a lot of time I want to spend with my grandchildren. So, life goes on.”
On Thursday, Reilly described his former adversary as a “colorful character, ” and said they eventually became friends and developed a mutual respect for one another.
“Although we had our very serious differences on and off the campaign trail, over time, I developed a great respect for the former alderman,” Reilly said. “Knowing what a pressure cooker the downtown ward can be, I came to appreciate his service.
“Whether you agreed with him or not, nobody could argue that Alderman Natarus didn’t love downtown Chicago.”
Mr. Natarus’ son, Michael, agreed.
“He loved the ward,” said Michael Natarus, who grew up at the Sandburg Village apartment complex. “He was old school. He used to like to walk the ward, not just ride around in a car.”
Mr. Natarus’ flair for the dramatic extended beyond the Council floor and to the stage, especially after retiring to private life. In 2011, Crain’s Chicago Business reported he’d drop in for scenes with a city comedy ensemble, and dabbled in community theater in Oak Park.
Also an avid outdoorsman, Mr. Natarus enjoyed taking his son on childhood trips rafting down rivers in the western United States.
“River running” quickly became their “father-son thing,” Michael Natarus said.
“Even after I went off to college, he went on a few rafting trips on his own,” Michael Natarus said. “He said, ‘The hell with you, I’m going to go anyway.’”
And even though Mr. Natarus grew up in Green Bay Packers country, he grew into a “hardcore” – albeit hyper-critical – Chicago Bears fan, his son said.
“He loved to rag on the Bears to the point of nauseum. And there was plenty to rag on,” joked Michael Natarus.
Mr. Natarus is also survived by his daughter Jill and grandchildren Jacob and Jenna. Services will be private. The family has asked contributions be made on his behalf to The Anti-Cruelty Society.
Contributing: Fran Spielman