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Philip Rock, ex-Senate leader known for mentoring and bipartisanship, dies

Philip J. Rock was a loyal Democrat and party leader who liked to say he was born into the party — but that didn’t stop him from building a reputation for his ability to work with Republicans and Democrats alike in his record tenure leading the state Senate.

The state’s longest serving Illinois Senate president died Friday in his home in downtown Chicago at the age of 78, said his son, Jay Rock.  He suffered from Lewy body dementia.

“He was a very positive guy,” said former Gov. Jim Thompson. “He believed strongly in what he was doing. He always tried to do the right thing for the state of Illinois, even if you didn’t agree with his particular method or legislation.”

Mr. Rock, a Democrat who represented Oak Park and sections of the city’s West Side, served as Senate president for 14 years, from 1979 to 1993.

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who worked as an aide to Mr. Rock from 1991 to 1992 called him “the most decent and honorable” person he’d ever met in politics.

“He’s a throwback to when government worked. He worked with everyone from both sides of the aisle,” Dart said in a statement. “He truly tried to get good things done. And he treated me with incredible kindness his whole life.”

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, who worked with Mr. Rock until he left the Illinois Senate in 1993, called him a great mentor.

“He was a great friend, mentor and member of the General Assembly for many, many years,” Madigan said in a statement. “His accomplishments, especially in the area of bettering the lives of children, are legion.”

Thompson called Mr. Rock a “great friend” and a “great leader.”

Thompson, a Republican who was the state’s longest serving governor, said he and the Democratic leader developed a great friendship because he knew he could trust Mr. Rock.

“His word was his bond. And he was able to steer a caucus in the Senate Democrats that included a lot of different voices,” Thompson said. “He was very adept at representing the caucus, without pushing too hard one way or another.”

Thompson recalled urging Mr. Rock not to run for Sen. Charles Percy’s U.S. Senate seat in 1984, as did many other friends. Thompson told him it would be difficult to “put your arm around the shoulders of a character and persuade him that you’re his best friend.”

“‘Phil, you don’t have the temperament to do that. You call it as you see it,’” Thompson recalled telling Mr. Rock.

When Mr. Rock lost the bid, Thompson and others were glad to have him back in the Illinois Senate.

“Phil and I had many more agreements than disagreements,” Thompson said. “I thought he was terrific.”

State Senate President Philip J.Rock  in 1984.  File Photo by  Phil Velasquez

State Senate President Philip J.Rock in 1984. File Photo by
Phil Velasquez

Senate President John Cullerton said Mr. Rock served as a mentor when he was appointed to the Senate in 1991.

“He took me under his wing, showed me the ropes and couldn’t have been nicer about it,” Cullerton said in a statement. “He was THE most articulate orator of anyone I’ve ever served with, a talent he told me he learned in the seminary.”

“Phil Rock was a man dedicated to the advancement of Democratic principles, unafraid to take unpopular stands for equality and justice, yet well versed in the necessity of bipartisanship,” Cullerton said, adding his commitment to compassionate policy continued even after his retirement, as he continued to advocate for people with disabilities.

A specialized school for deaf-blind students in Glen Ellyn was renamed the Philip J. Rock Center and School in 1987 to honor of Mr. Rock, who helped pass legislation that changed the state school code to include more resources for deaf-blind individuals, one of Mr. Rock’s proudest accomplishments, according to his family.

Ald. Ed Burke (14th) and Mr. Rock were longtime friends. They met in the late 1960s when Burke became his ward’s Democratic committeeman.

They had a habit of performing “Danny Boy” on St. Patrick’s Day — Mr. Rock on vocals, Burke on the piano, Burke recalled. Thompson joined in on the song at a Maryville Academy charity dinner honoring Mr. Rock in 1992.

“He was one of the most intelligent and gracious people to ever serve in public life in Illinois,” Burke said.

Senate President Philip J.Rock (D-Oak Park sings "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" in 1991at State of Illinois Center. At the piano is Aid. Edward M. Burke (14th).  File Photo.

Senate President Philip J.Rock (D-Oak Park sings “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” in 1991at State of Illinois Center. At the piano is Aid. Edward M. Burke (14th). File Photo.

Mr. Rock was the leader of suburban Cook County Democrats for more than a decade until he stepped down in 2000.

He put the state above politics, Burke said.

“His eye was always on the prize. He wasn’t hung up on partisanship. He was dedicated to accomplishing good things for the people of Illinois,” Burke said.

Mr. Rock was the author of more than 450 Illinois laws during his time in the Illinois Senate, including important reforms in special education, child adoption, foster care, domestic violence and child support.

A loyal Democrat, Mr. Rock ignored court rulings that banned political hiring and firing.

Mr. Rock, who grew up on the Northwest Side, was the son of Joe Rock, a native of Luxembourg and Kathryn, a first-generation Irish-American. His political mentor was former Attorney General William Clark.

He has said that he was born a Catholic, a Democrat and a Cubs fan. He nearly became a priest. Mr. Rock attended Quigley Preparatory Seminary followed by the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein. He received his law degree from Loyola University School of Law in Chicago.

After graduating, Mr. Rock began his legal career with the Office of the Illinois Attorney General as an Assistant Attorney General under Clark. In 1970, he was elected to the Illinois state Senate where he served for 22 years. After his retirement, he returned to his private law practice with his best friend and law partner, Daniel R. Fusco at Rock Fusco and Connelly, LLC in Chicago.

Mara Georges, the city’s longest serving corporation counsel, started her career as a litigation partner at Mr. Rock’s firm. She found him to be humble and considerate.

“Phil Rock was a tremendous human being who never let the fact that he held a powerful position get in the way of his relationships with everyday people.” Georges said in a statement. “Even when I was a young, inexperienced lawyer, Senator Rock always took the time to talk to me in an effort to make sure I understood the nuances of the issues.  He was kind, approachable, smart and true to his word.  Illinois politics was very well served by him.”

Survivors include his wife of 51 years, Sheila, his children Kathleen Snow, Meghan Simmons, Colleen Mueller and John J. “Jay” and 12 grandchildren.

A funeral mass is scheduled for Feb. 11 at 10 a.m. at Old St. Patrick’s Church, 700 W. Adams St. in Chicago. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations in Mr. Rock’s name may be made to the Philip J. Rock Center and School, 818 DuPage Blvd, Glen Ellyn, IL 60137 or Misericordia Home, 6300 N. Ridge Ave. Chicago, IL 60660.

Richard M. Daley, Philip Rock and Mike Madigan in 1989. File Photo.

Richard M. Daley, Philip Rock and Mike Madigan in 1989. File Photo.