James R. ‘Jim’ Reilly, former McPier, RTA and Chicago convention chief, dead at 77

‘There are very few people in Illinois history that have ever had such a big effect on major projects and issues,’ said Kirk Dillard, who chairs the Regional Transportation Authority.

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Jim Reilly in 2010, when he we was a trustee and former chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the government agency known as McPier.

Jim Reilly in 2010, when he we was a trustee and former chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the government agency known as McPier.

Rich Hein / Sun-Times file

Jim Reilly, a downstate Illinois lawmaker who became chief of staff to two governors and headed agencies that oversaw mass transit in the Chicago area, state construction projects and the operations of McCormick Place and Navy Pier, has died at 77.

He died of pneumonia Monday at the St. Joseph Village assisted living facility in Chicago, where he had been recovering from a fall, according to Steve Schlickman, a friend who was executive director of the Regional Transportation Agency during Mr. Reilly’s 2005-2010 tenure as chairman of the RTA board.

Schlickman credited Mr. Reilly with steering that agency through a period when it faced a $400 million yearly shortfall.

“As chairman of the RTA, he did more for transit than any other chairman of that organization that I’m aware of for the last 42 years,” Schlickman said. “He helped secure a [state] funding initiative that avoided huge cuts in service and fare increases in 2008.”

Jim Reilly in the 1990s, when he was chief of staff to Gov. Jim Edgar.

Jim Reilly in the 1990s, when he was chief of staff to Gov. Jim Edgar.

Sun Times file

“Jim did not take for granted the goodwill and friendship of others,” his wife Veronica Lynch said in a written statement. “I don’t believe he fully realized the impact he had on Illinois, most visibly Chicago. He departed with a million more plans in mind.”

Mr. Reilly grew up in Springfield, attending Springfield High School. His father James was a lawyer and his mother Alta was a secretary for the American Red Cross, according to an oral history he provided to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

In 1967, he graduated from Illinois College in Jacksonville, then went on to get a law degree in 1972 from the University of Chicago.

After law school, he taught school in downstate Winchester. He was the city attorney for Jacksonville in the 1970s when he was elected to the Illinois General Assembly. 

In 1984, Mr. Reilly, who was 5-feet-9-inches tall, was named chief of staff to Gov. James R. Thompson, who stood 6-feet-6-inches tall. At the time of his appointment, Mr. Reilly joked, “Any references to Big Jim and Little Jim will be prohibited.”

After six years of working for Thompson, he was chief of staff to his successor, Gov. Jim Edgar, for a year.

Starting in 1989, he was chief executive officer for a decade of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the government agency known as McPier that oversees McCormick Place and Navy Pier. He helped oversee renovations and expansion including development at the McCormick Place South Building and Hyatt Regency McCormick Place.

Jim played an extremely significant role in the redevelopment and philanthropic support of Navy Pier,” said Marilynn Gardner, president and chief executive officer of Navy Pier Inc., which runs the popular tourist attraction.

Mr. Reilly then spent four years as CEO of what was then the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau and returned to McPier for a second term as CEO there from 2012 to 2015.

Jim Reilly talking in 2011 with Marilynn Gardner, now president and chief executive officer of Navy Pier Inc.

Jim Reilly talking in 2011 with Marilynn Gardner, now president and chief executive officer of Navy Pier Inc.

John H. White / Sun-Times file

He also chaired the Illinois Capital Development Board, which manages construction projects and capital planning for state agencies and universities.

“There are very few people in Illinois history that have ever had such a big effect on major projects and issues,” said Kirk Dillard, who worked for Mr. Reilly when he was Thompson’s chief of staff and is chairman of the RTA board. “Jim was an instrumental leader in so many projects affecting Illinoisans, from McCormick Place and Navy Pier to mass transit to education.

“Basically, everything Jim Reilly touched was successful,” Dillard said. “He was respected in a bipartisan fashion like very few individuals I’ve ever seen.”

Mr. Reilly’s wife is a senior staff executive assistant with the Illinois treasurer’s office and previously held posts that included, from 1977 to 1990, working for then-Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan as director of research on his appropriations staff.

“They were the complete bipartisan governmental package,” Dillard said.

The couple also formerly owned and ran the Sandpiper Inn in Union Pier, Michigan.

Mr. Reilly liked to travel, especially to Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. And he was a big fan of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Services for Mr. Reilly are being planned, to be held at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier.

In his oral history, Mr. Reilly said one of the biggest changes he’d seen in government was a shift over time to a reflexive anti-tax stance among politicians and the public.

“In the ’70s and even into the early ’80s, tax increases were not evil,” he said. “Politically, nobody ever campaigned on, ‘Got to have a tax increase.’ But I think generally people maybe had more faith in government and had more of a sense that taxes are sort of a necessary evil, something you pay for the price of having the kind of things you want.” 

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