Long before the coronavirus outbreak, Jerry Mulvihill was helping people get health insurance, helping them get medical care, helping them get unemployment compensation and helping them find housing.
Most people would say that was just his job as a caseworker for U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., and before that Lipinski’s father, Rep. Bill Lipinski.
But they don’t know Mulvihill. They have never seen him at work.
“What’s amazing about Jerry is his ability to listen,” Dan Lipinski said. “He will just listen to anyone’s problem and he does it, not just at work, but at social functions. I’ve seen complete strangers come up to him and just start telling him about their problems and he listens. More importantly, he cares.”
I first saw Mulvihill at work decades ago when I went to Lipinski’s Southwest Side office on Archer Avenue early one morning for a newspaper interview and saw a long line of people outside the congressman’s office.
They had legal documents in their hands, government forms, manila folders stuffed full of paperwork, and each person told me about their problems, which ranged from trying to get a family member out of a foreign country to obtaining Social Security disability payments to problems with the IRS.
Officially, Mulvihill is now Lipinski’s chief caseworker. He deals with 1,000 cases a year and — officially — has handled more than 33,000 over his career.
Unofficially, he probably has handled thousands more.
That’s because someone like me has probably told people that Mulvihill can help with whatever problem they’re facing in life, even if they lived outside Lipinski’s congressional district.
“Of course, I will try to help, tell them to call,” Mulvihill would always say to me.
At the very least, he found time to listen, even with other constituents sitting at his desk, even with people standing in line, even when his phones were ringing.
“That’s the job,” he said. “And I love doing it. I mean, I get excited every day just thinking about going to work. Still that way after 33 years. It’s human beings helping other human beings and it’s what we all should be doing, especially now.”
Lipinski lost the Democratic primary election in March to Marie Newman.
She has big ideas. With luck, she will learn what’s really important is making government work for ordinary people every day.
Mulvihill did that for Lipinski.
He is a classic patronage employee and admits at much.
At the age of 41, he lost his job in distribution with Sherwin Williams, the paint company, and after searching everywhere, ended up in the office of his old friend, Bill Lipinski.
They had played Amateur Athletic Union basketball together as young men.
Lipinski knew Mulvihill was a good guy. A fellow who would work hard. And so, he gave him a job, but not as a caseworker at first.
That happened one day when the previous caseworker retired. Lipinski asked his staff who wanted the job. Mulvihill raised his hand.
“I knew it was about helping people,” Mulvihill said. “I was excited about doing that.”
He took courses in social work. Went back to school. Got a certificate. And continued his education.
But most importantly, as the years wore on, he got to know people in other branches of government who could help. He also developed contacts at hospitals, nursing homes and banks.
During the 2008 housing crisis, before the government stepped in officially, Mulvihill called bank executives and sent them letters under the congressman’s name trying to save the homes of people being foreclosed on.
“We saved a few, not many, but it felt good to save some of them,” Mulvihill said.
Did I mention his annual Christmas drive to feed the poor? He started that on his own and for nearly 30 years now it has delivered meals to about 300 people each December.
At the age of 75, Mulvihill was still rotating among the congressman’s five branch offices until recently, when they shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak. Now he works out of his home. Still helping.
“Isn’t that what people should do during this virus?” Mulvihill asked.
And then in an excited voice he exclaimed, “Maybe we can start our own virus of people helping people. Wouldn’t that be something? A niceness virus.”
Mulvihill has been a carrier all of his life.
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