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Mary Rose Loney, Chicago’s first female aviation commissioner, dies at 68

Mayor Richard M. Daley was so impressed with Loney he hired her twice. After four years as first deputy aviation commissioner, she left to run Philadelphia International Airport. In 1996, Daley lured Loney back to be Chicago’s first female aviation commissioner.

Chicago Aviation Commissioner Mary Rose Loney in 1996, announcing plans for a new terminal at Midway Airport.
Chicago Aviation Commissioner Mary Rose Loney in 1996, announcing plans for a new terminal at Midway Airport.
Sun-Times file

Mary Rose Loney looked like a blonde version of “Gidget,” the sit-com character played by actress Sally Field. But Loney was tough as nails — and she needed to be.

In 1996, she broke a glass ceiling, becoming the first woman to serve as Chicago’s aviation commissioner. She took on clout-heavy contractors who had a long ride on the gravy train of contracts at O’Hare and Midway airports.

Loney, 68, died Tuesday, said Dennis Culloton, who served under Loney as Aviation Department spokesman.

After Loney was slow to recover from a fractured pelvis suffered after a fall in their Las Vegas driveway, her husband Randy Schrader took her to a hospital in late August. Doctors found lung cancer that had gone undetected for months and already had metastasized. She never left the hospital.

“Some of the same folks that she clashed with 25 years ago are in the news today,” Culloton said.

“She had framed on her wall an editorial from the Philadelphia news media praising her tenure at the airport there as ‘Hell on heels.’ She was a small person. She always dressed to the nines. She took her appearance seriously. But she was fearless.”

Schrader added, “Mary Rose, as sweet as she was, took crap from nobody. She would do anything for anybody. But you had better not cross her.”

Now-former Mayor Richard M. Daley was so impressed with Loney’s talents, he summoned her to Chicago twice.

After Daley’s 1989 election, Loney spent four years as first deputy aviation commissioner. She left to run Philadelphia International Airport after an offer she couldn’t refuse from then-Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, who would become a close personal friend.

Mary Rose Loney at a 1999 news conference at which Mayor Richard M. Daley announced the construction of two new terminals at O’Hare Airport.
Mary Rose Loney at a February 1999 news conference at which Mayor Richard M. Daley announced the construction of two new terminals at O’Hare Airport.
Sun-Times file

In 1996, Daley lured Loney back to O’Hare, this time as Chicago’s first female aviation commissioner. At the time, the Daley administration was under siege for contract cronyism at O’Hare. His then-City Council floor leader, Ald. Patrick Huels (11th), was under scrutiny.

Daley obviously hoped Loney’s sterling reputation as an aviation professional would make the headlines go away.

Loney did just that — by announcing that 100% of contracts at O’Hare and Midway would be competitively bid.

“That was to help the mayor with problems that were developing around the scandal surrounding Alderman Huels,” Culloton said. Huels was forced to resign after a contracting scandal in 1997.

“An insider then called a colleague of mine and uttered what should go down as a famous quote about Chicago politics. The person said of Mary Rose, `What she don’t understand is that 100 percent don’t mean 100 percent.’ ... Mary Rose ignored it and we pressed on. She knew that not only was the airport system well-served by competitive contracts, but the mayor was as well.”

Schrader acknowledged Loney didn’t win the battle royal over O’Hare contracts, but “she fought it and left an impression on that battle. ... There became a new decorum of how to negotiate those deals ... because Mary Rose was there to try and make sure it was a more fair, more square deal.”

During her four-year tenure as commissioner, she was also credited with developing a long-term capital program for O’Hare, launching the Midway Airport Terminal development project and making countless security improvements at both airports. Southwest Airlines planted its flag at Midway.

Chicago Aviation Commissioner Mary Rose Loney at O’Hare Airport in 1998.
Mary Rose Loney at O’Hare Airport in 1998.
Sun-Times file

Loney and Schrader were married only three years, but had a 25-year romance that began when Schrader approached Loney with a proposal for a new power generation plant that, he said, could save Philadelphia International Airport a lot of money.

Schrader owned a company that built power plants, but ended up advising Loney to renew the existing power contract after the incumbent municipal power company made a counter-offer to reduce rates.

He then asked Loney: “We’re not going to do the energy transaction, but will you at least have dinner with me?”

After years of proposing, Schrader finally convinced Loney to marry him on St. Patrick’s Day 2017 in San Diego, officially becoming Mary Rose Loney Schrader on the 22nd anniversary of their first kiss.

The couple recently moved to Las Vegas to be closer to family.

Through tears, Schrader described being unable to see his wife until the 18th day of her hospitalization because of precautions taken by the hospital during the coronavirus pandemic.

When he finally arrived at the hospital, she was in a coma.

“When she didn’t hear me, what I said to her was that I loved her. That I always would. And I thanked her for making my life complete,” Schrader said.

“I told her to go run the airport in heaven. I’m sure she has already applied for that job.”

Schrader described his wife as “the most caring person” he had ever known.

“She was one of those people that you had to be careful saying, ‘I would like to do this’ or, `I want that.’ Because the next thing you know, she was planning it or getting it. She cared more dramatically for other people than almost anybody I’ve ever known,” he said.

In addition to Schrader, survivors include: sisters Molly Kubincanek, Katey Fox and Shawn Dahn; brother Jack Loney; numerous nieces and nephews.

Private services will be held in Loney’s hometown of Pittsburgh.