Former Mayor Jane Byrne's trailblazing legacy unfairly ignored

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The forgotten mayor: Jane Byrne.

What can I say about former Mayor Jane Byrne, who is ill, frail and just turned 81?

A lot.

I could say that in the long history of this city, she is the only woman to be elected mayor of Chicago.

I will say her legacy has been ignored by subsequent mayoral administrations, basically erased during Mayor Richard M. Daley’s tenure in office, and long overdue for recognition.

Today, women are breaking the glass ceiling. Jane Byrne broke it decades ago.

But it’s a safe bet no school kid in Chicago even knows her name.

When the city placed stones emblazoned with names of famous women near public buildings in 1993, Byrne didn’t even get a rock.

It went without saying then that if Daley wanted Byrne embedded in a rock, it would have been cement.

There have been nine formal mayoral inaugurals since Byrne left office in 1983, and she was asked to attend only three, according to Byrne’s daughter, Kathy.

Although Mayors Harold Washington and Rahm Emanuel graciously invited her to attend their inaugurations, no Chicago mayor since her term in office has made an effort to honor the city’s most famous female footnote in any sort of tribute.

“Mom attended the three mayoral inaugurals she was invited to as a fulfillment of her duty as a former mayor and out of respect for the office,” Kathy Byrne said.

“When Mayor Emanuel invited my mom, she was not in good physical health, but nothing on earth was going to stop her from being on that stage.

“It had been so long since she had been acknowledged in any official capacity that she doubted it was really going to happen.

“I went over every minute of the program with event staff to make sure she would be in the right places at the right times. They even provided a golf cart to whisk my mom from the breakfast pavilion to backstage!

“I knew this was going to be an important moment for my mom, and I had Willy [Kathy’s son and Byrne’s only grandchild] skip school to witness it. I started crying when she was introduced and walked out on that stage and took her seat next to Cardinal George. So many feelings, so many years, and yet there she was, proud and strong.”

It is shocking how Byrne has been ignored.


◆ The scenic lakefront Museum Campus, which “Star Wars” creator George Lucas is considering for his cultural arts center, was a brainchild of Byrne, who laid its groundwork.

◆ She was the first to propose uniting the Field Museum, Adler Planetarium and Shedd Aquarium in preparation for the 1992 World’s Fair, which never happened — but she was not invited to the campus’ June 1998 dedication ceremony by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Back then Byrne commented: “I’m sort of erased in the minds of some people.”

She has been.

In fairness, I must disclose I was her press secretary for a very short period of time in 1979. I admit, working for her was difficult, because I belonged on the reporter’s side of the pencil, so we were an ill fit — and she seemed to be more comfortable listening to male advisers.

But she was strong, determined, and smart — although I thought she spent too much time putting out brush fires she had a tendency to start. Taking bullets out of Jane’s gun wasn’t easy.

However, the way she has been treated is a disgrace.

Byrne is now ill, frail, in a wheelchair and lovingly attended to by her family, which includes her adored grandson, Willy, now 16and student body president at Francis W. Parker School.

But her abandonment by our city fathers has stung.

◆ Byrne’s beloved Children’s Fountain, dedicated on Upper Wacker Drive in 1982 and moved during the 2001 reconstruction of Wacker Drive during Daley’s administration, was largely forgotten and eventually relocated to a humble setting in Lincoln Park.

◆ The fountain Byrne dedicated to Vietnam War veterans in 1982, which she claimed was the first public memorial in the nation dedicated solely to those who served and died in Vietnam, also was relocated during the Wacker Drive reconstruction, warehoused for years, and then incorporated by Daley in 2005 into a Vietnam Memorial Plaza on Wacker Drive that primarily bears his name.

◆ Invited by Daley to attend the fountain’s rededication, Byrne was unable to attend because of surgery — but Kathy, her only child, spoke at the cold, rainy day in 1982 when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin dedicated the fountain.

◆ What Kathy didn’t say was that the original fountain plaque bearing her mother’s name and the time capsule — which her mother said was filled with a letter from President Ronald Reagan and mementos from Vietnam War veterans — were missing, lost forever by careless or intentional hands. The vets were outraged.

“No public official has the right to wipe out 14 years of history,” an angry Byrne wrote in a Letter to the Editor published in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2003.

◆ The Water Tower Park clock was built during her administration, though Byrne has claimed it was bulldozed during renovations under Daley.

Byrne was elected to office when women were first flexing their muscles, but she’s been drop-kicked by the elected male muscle since then.

Gov. Jim Thompson and former Mayor Richard J. Daley have buildings named after them; Mayor Harold Washington has his name on a library; former Mayor Michael Bilandic, who lost an election to a snowstorm, has a building, too.

Please note there are also Richard J. Daley College, Harold Washington College, and John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital of Cook County. If a former mayor didn’t get a building, they got a street.


Let’s consider some of Byrne’s accomplishments during her brief time in office from 1979 to 1983, chronicled by the media, admirers and former staff.

◆ She was the first Chicago mayor to openly recognize the gay community by participating in the Gay Pride Parade.

◆ She focused attention on the city’s high-rise crime by actually moving into the notorious Cabrini-Green projects for several weeks with her husband, Jay McMullen, and turned garbage-strewn fields into baseball diamonds.

◆ She passed the first ordinance to ban possession of handguns.

◆ During a time of great financial stress with double-digit inflation and huge unemployment, Byrne opened the budget to public scrutiny for the first time. Hidden city deficits and a financial crisis at the Board of Education were ameliorated.

◆ The $1 billion provided from the federal government for the Crosstown Expressway was put to good use after the highway’s cancellation. Major projects such as straightening the Lake Shore Drive “S curve,” beginning the CTA Orange Line to Midway and the Blue Line to O’Hare airport were made possible.

◆ Ward-by-ward programs were established to repair city streets.

◆ She began the popular Taste of Chicago, which eventually led to the creation of the Chicago Jazz Festival, Blues Festival and Gospel Music Festival.

◆ Her vision led to the eventual redevelopment of Navy Pier.

Yet, the late first lady Maggie Daley, who was rightly revered for her After School Matters work — but was never elected to office — is going to have a 20-acre park named after her near the lake?

Maggie may deserve it, but nothing for Jane Byrne?

On the downside, the city’s first firefighters’ strike was on Byrne’s watch. And she invited the ire of the Democratic stalwarts when she endorsed U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy for president after announcing her support for the re-election of President Jimmy Carter at a dinner for him in Chicago.

During a newspaper interview in 2004, Byrne was asked how historians would view the administration of the first female mayor of Chicago.

Quoth Byrne: “If they were to take the actual solid work of a mayor — don’t make her ‘Jane Byrne’ — I’d get straight A’s. There were tremendous accomplishments during that four-year period.”

But, she added, history will say: “Her work was never appreciated because of her personality.”

Where have I heard that lament before?

Why aren’t women outraged at this slight? Let’s hear your comments.

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