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Daley Family Collections: About Richard J. Daley

A guide to the Daley Family collections at UIC Special Collections and University Archives

Biography of Richard J. Daley

Richard Joseph Daley was a six-term mayor of the city of Chicago (1955-1976) and the influential chair of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee from 1953 until his death in 1976. Described by one writer as “the most powerful local politician America has ever produced,” Daley also wielded state and national political influence during his terms in office.

Richard J. Daley was the third Chicago mayor to be born in the working-class Irish neighborhood of Bridgeport on the city’s Near South Side. The only child of Irish Catholic sheet-metal worker and labor unionist Michael Daley and his wife, Lillian (Dunne) Daley, Richard J. Daley attended Nativity of Our Lord parochial elementary school and graduated in 1919 from De La Salle Institute, a Catholic High School that taught business and clerical skills. Daley worked briefly in the stockyards after graduation and attended college and later night school law classes at DePaul University. He received his law degree in 1933 and in 1936 partnered with Bridgeport lawyer William J. Lynch.

Daley’s entry into Chicago politics was through the Hamburg Athletic Club, a Bridgeport club active in Chicago election politics. Daley was a member and in 1924 was elected its president. Club sponsor, Alderman and Ward Committeeman Joseph McDonough chose Daley to be his personal ward secretary and a precinct captain in the politically active 11th Ward, where his home and the Club were located. After the 1923 election of Mayor William Dever, Daley began work as a clerk in the City Council. In 1930, McDonough became County Treasurer and Daley became his deputy, shouldering the day-to-day activities of the office. After McDonough’s death, Daley continued to work under County Treasurers Thomas D. Nash, Robert M. Sweitzer, and Joseph L. Gill. Following the death of 20-year veteran Michael J. O’Connor in 1936, Daley’s knowledge of county finances led to his appointment as Chief Deputy County Comptroller.

In that same year, with the backing of McDonough, Daley was elected to his first political office as a write-in Republican candidate to replace the recently deceased state representative, David Shanahan, in the Illinois General Assembly. Immediately after the election, however, Daley returned to the Democratic Party. He remained a lifelong Democrat. In the legislature, Daley supported progressive legislation such as the school lunch program and a fairer state sales tax. In 1938, Daley was elected state senator, and he served as senate minority leader from 1941 to 1946. In 1946, Daley unsuccessfully challenged Republican candidate Elmer Walsh in an election for Cook County Sheriff. Daley’s loss was his only electoral defeat in his long political career. In 1948, Daley was appointed Governor Adlai Stevenson’s State Director of Revenue. Working out of the State of Illinois building in downtown Chicago, he was an advocate for fiscal and tax reform. In 1950, after the death of the current Clerk, Daley was appointed to fill out the term as Clerk of Cook County. He was successfully elected to a full term in 1950 and re-elected in 1954. As Clerk, Daley’s office was responsible for vital records such as business and notary records and for birth, death, and marriage certificates. Daley instituted a number of innovations such as the first county court calendar of law and he streamlined marriage license procedures. During this time Daley was an active participant in Democratic politics, becoming Democratic Ward Committeeman of the influential 11th Ward in the late 1940s. In 1953, he became Chair of the Democratic Central Committee, a powerful position which oversaw slate making for every elected position in the county. In 1955, Daley ran against and beat incumbent Mayor Martin Kennelly and former State Representative Benjamin Adamowski in a bitterly contested primary election and went on to defeat Republican alderman Robert Merriam in the general election, becoming the 39th Mayor of Chicago. In a new tradition, he was sworn in to office by childhood friend, Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, instead of the outgoing mayor. The voters of Chicago re-elected Daley in 1959, 1963, 1967, 1971, and 1975. He served a total of five full terms and one partial term in office – the longest serving mayor until that time. As simultaneous head of the city government and the local Democratic Party, Daley wielded great local, state, and eventually national political influence.

Shortly after his first election, Daley recruited new policy professionals to his administration and consolidated his power over the City Council. He transferred city budget initiation from the Council to his comptroller’s and budget director’s offices, shifted the issuance of city contracts to the city’s purchasing agent, won new sales and utility taxing powers, centralized many ward services and limited the ability of council members to grant such potentially lucrative favors as issuing driveway permits. Throughout his tenure, with the exception of a small number of Independents and northwest side Republicans, he faced limited opposition from the aldermen, never losing a vote in the City Council. In 1970, he reduced state power in Chicago by lobbying for and gaining “home rule” status, which allowed the city to impose all but income taxes without state legislative approval.

As mayor, Daley focused on municipal services and the development of the city center, contributing to the oft-cited image of Chicago as “the city that works.” During his first term, the city added new garbage trucks, sewers, street and alley lighting, downtown parking facilities and more police and fire personnel. Under his watch, the Central District Filtration Plant (1968), the largest in the world, provided fluoridated water to the central and north sides and the South Water Filtration Plant was expanded. In 1975, the Deep Tunnel project (Tunnel and Reservoir Plan) was begun to relieve flooding in the metropolitan area. The city’s first bicycle paths and first city-sponsored neighborhood health clinics were initiated and neighborhood cleanup campaigns were begun.

The city hosted a number of public events and visits by national and foreign dignitaries. Soon after his first election the annual Southtown Parade in honor of St. Patrick’s Day was moved downtown and the Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Union began a tradition of dyeing the Chicago River green in celebration. Venetian Nights also attracted crowds to the riverfront. In 1959, an International Trade Fair celebrating the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway was attended by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. The city sponsored downtown parades for the crews of Apollo 10, 11, and 13 and hosted visits by Sean F. Lemass, the first Prime Minister of Ireland, Eleanor Roosevelt, Levi Eshkol, Premier of Israel, King Frederik IX and Queen Ingrid of Denmark, numerous politicians, and celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, Danny Thomas, and Jack Benny. Under Daley, new building projects dramatically changed the physical character of the city. Daley’s administration presided over the construction of the Northwest (1960), Dan Ryan (1962), Congress (1964), and Southwest (1964) expressways, the extension of Wacker Drive, and the expansion of the North and South Outer Drives. In 1966 a new Civic Center was dedicated in downtown Chicago and in 1967 it was graced by the gift of an outdoor sculpture commissioned from artist Pablo Picasso. Other notable outdoor artwork followed, including Chagall’s Four Seasons (1974) and Calder’s Flamingo (1974). The construction of the massive McCormick Place Convention Center (1960) on the lakefront and the enlargement of O’Hare International Airport brought travelers and business to the city. The O’Hare dedication (1963) was attended by President John F. Kennedy. The Sears Tower (1973), IBM Plaza, Marina City, Lake Point Towers, John Hancock Building (1970), and the Water Tower Place (1975) all contributed to the revitalization of the downtown. Although the city lost several historic buildings to the trend towards new construction (including the Garrick Theatre and the Stock Exchange Building), the old public library was saved by a Daley-appointed committee and later became the Chicago Cultural Center. In 1968, the city established a Commission on Chicago Landmarks (CCL) which researches and recommends historic landmark status to the City Council.

The city was also involved in urban renewal, demolition of declining neighborhoods, and the construction of federally funded public housing projects. Although the project met with neighborhood opposition, Daley was particularly proud of the construction of the University of Illinois Chicago Circle (now University of Illinois at Chicago) campus on the Near West Side of the city (1965). More controversial was the use of federal money to fund construction of massive high rise public housing towers in some of the city’s primarily African American neighborhoods. The Stateway Gardens (1955), Cabrini-Green Extension (1957, 1962), and the Robert Taylor Homes (1962) were all built on the city’s South and West sides.

To fund building projects, the city pursued state and federal funding and sought to create an environment that encouraged private investment. A Public Building Commission was formed (1956) to centralize planning and help finance public construction through revenue bonds. At the same time, flexible tax policies and zoning appealed to and attracted private business interests. City sales and utility taxes also helped fund municipal projects. Despite a declining tax base as people and businesses moved to the suburbs, the city of Chicago remained solvent and with a high bond rating at a time when other large urban centers were struggling. Building projects brought high-paying union jobs for Chicago workers, and labor leaders were appointed to policymaking city boards and committees.

Daley’s tenure was not without controversy, however. He was mayor at a contentious time when urban centers were confronted with dramatic socio-economic change, issues of racial segregation in schools and housing, and affirmative action in fire and police forces. These issues, along with perceptions of concentration on infrastructure and services for the downtown area at the expense of neighborhoods, especially in the racially segregated South and West Sides, and the city’s response to violence following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., eroded Daley’s initial strong support among African American voters.

Ticket fixing, bribes, inflated contracts, and other corruption scandals brought investigations and led to prison terms for some public officials, including City Council floor leader Thomas Keane. The 1960 Summerdale Scandal involving a police burglary ring led to the resignation of the Police Commissioner. Daley appointed Orlando O. Wilson, who undertook a series of reforms to professionalize the force. National criticism was levied at the city for its response to rioting during the Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago in 1968. The majority of Chicagoans appeared to applaud the actions of the Chicago Police, although the “Walker Report” (1968) written by a Presidential Commission on Violence deemed their actions a “police riot.”

Daley also drew criticism for the strength of his political power and his reliance on the belief that “good government is good politics and good politics is good government. ” As Chairman of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Cook County, a position he held until his death in 1976, Daley exerted considerable influence over the slating of Democratic candidates. The Central Committee was composed of ward committeemen from each of the city’s 50 wards. Ward Committeemen delivered city services and controlled the city’s 3,400 precinct captains, responsible for delivering the local vote. As both mayor and head of the local Democratic Party, Daley was believed to control over 40,000 patronage jobs. In 1960, Daley’s national political power was demonstrated when he helped to deliver the vote of the city of Chicago for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, earning a cover photograph on TIME magazine but also accusations of Democratic ballot box stuffing.

In 1969, Michael Shakman, an unsuccessful candidate for the Illinois State Constitutional Convention, brought a class action suit against the mayor, the city, and the Democratic Party. Shakman’s suit challenged the patronage system for compelling workers to deliver votes and contribute to campaigns. The 1972 Shakman ruling (later followed by more stringent rulings) limited politically motivated firing of city and county employees. In 1972, Daley’s political power was further challenged when the Democratic National Convention’s Credentials Committee voted against seating 58 elected Illinois convention delegates aligned with Daley in favor of a delegation led by 43rd ward alderman William S. Singer and Reverend Jesse Jackson, Jr. Despite the controversy, in the convention's aftermath Daley supported the Democratic Party's nominee, Senator George McGovern.

However, Richard J. Daley enjoyed tremendous loyalty from the voters of the city of Chicago and was reelected each term with substantial majorities. In 1975, he earned his largest political victory ever, garnering over 70% of the vote. He had a reputation for personal honesty, hard-work, and openness to the press. After his marriage to Eleanor “Sis” Guilfoyle on June 23, 1936, the Daley family lived modestly in a typical Chicago brick bungalow in the neighborhood in which he had grown up. Daley was an avid fisherman and a devoted White Sox fan. The Daley’s had three daughters and four sons. Their eldest son, Richard M. Daley was an elected delegate to the Illinois Constitutional Convention (1970), Illinois State Senator (1972-1980), Cook County State’s Attorney (1980-1989), and was elected Mayor of Chicago (1989-2011), serving six full terms and surpassing his father’s record as the longest serving Chicago mayor. Second born son Michael Daley became an attorney in the prominent firm of Daley and Georges, Ltd. John Daley became an Illinois State Representative (1985-1989), an Illinois Senator (1989-1992) and a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners (1992-current). And the youngest son, William M. Daley, served as U.S. Secretary of Commerce (1997-2000) and White House Chief of Staff (2011-2012). The three Daley daughters -- Patricia (Daley) Martino, Mary Carol (Daley) Vanecko, and Eleanor R. Daley -- became teachers.

On December 20, 1976, during a routine doctor’s visit, Mayor Richard J. Daley (aged 74) suffered a fatal heart attack. Hundreds of dignitaries including President Jimmy Carter, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, Senator Ted Kennedy, and thousands of Chicagoans attended his wake. He was buried after a private ceremony in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in suburban Worth, Illinois.

Timeline for Richard J. Daley


1902 May 15, Richard Joseph Daley is born at 3602 S. Lowe in Chicago to Michael and Lillian Dunne Daley.

1916 Graduated from Nativity of Our Lord Elementary School.

1919 Graduated from De La Salle Institute, a 3-year Catholic commercial high school, began work for stockyards commission house, Dolan, Ludeman, and Company, and became precinct captain in Joseph McDonough’s 11th ward organization and personal assistant to McDonough.

1924 Elected president of the Hamburg Athletic Club.

1930 Became deputy county treasurer under Joseph McDonough.

1933 Obtained law degree from DePaul University. Later, entered into law partnership with William Lynch. Law firm of Daley & Lynch existed until 1955.

1936 June 17, married Eleanor “Sis” Guilfoyle. The Daley’s had seven children (Patricia, Mary Carol, Eleanor, Richard M., Michael, John, and William) and remained married until Richard J. Daley’s death.

1936 November 3, elected State Representative for Illinois on write-in Republican ballot. After election, he rejoined Democratic Party.

1936 December 17, appointed Chief Deputy County Comptroller.

1938 November 8, elected State Senator for Illinois as a Democrat.

1939 Daley family moved to seven-room bungalow at 3536 South Lowe in Bridgeport.

1941 Served as Senate Minority Leader (1941-1946), the youngest party leader in Illinois Senate history.

1946 Unsuccessful run for Cook county Sheriff against Elmer Michael Walsh.

1947 Became ward committeeman for 11th Ward (1947-1976), replacing Hugh B. Connelly.

1947 December 21, appointed State Director of Revenue (1948-1950) by Governor Adlai Stevenson, working out of the State of Illinois building in downtown Chicago.

1950 Appointed to fill vacant Cook County Clerk position.

1950 January 9, 1950 elected Cook County Clerk; 1954 re-elected.

1953 Became Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee, replacing Joseph Gill. Served until 1976.

1955 Elected mayor after defeating Benjamin Adamowski and incumbent Mayor Martin Kennelly in the primary and Republican Robert E. Merriam in the general election.

1959 Reelected for 2nd term after defeating Lar Daly in the primary and against Republican Timothy Sheehan in the general election.

1963 Reelected Mayor after running unopposed in the primary and against Republican Benjamin Adamowski in the general election.

1967 Reelected for 4th term after running unopposed in the primary and against Republican John L. Waner in the general election.

1971 Reelected for 5th term after running unopposed in the primary and against Republican Richard E. Friedman in the general election.

1975 Reelected for 6th term after defeating Edward V. Hanrahan, Richard H. Newhouse and William S. Singer in the primary and Republican John J. Hoellen in the general election.

1976 December 20, stricken with fatal heart attack while in his doctor’s office. Richard J. Daley was buried with a private interment at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in southwest suburban Worth, Illinois, after a public memorial service that saw thousands of Chicagoans waiting outside for hours in the frigid December air in order to pay their respects.

Sources Consulted

Bernstein, David. "Daley vs. Daley." Chicago 57, no. 9 (September 2008): 70-112.

Cohen, Adam and Elizabeth Taylor. American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley, His Battle for Chicago and the Nation. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 2000.

The Daley Record. Richard J. Daley Collection. University of Illinois at Chicago.

Green, Paul M. “Mayor Richard J. Daley and the Politics of Good Government.” In The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition. Edited by Paul M. Green and Melvin G. Holli. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Press, 2013.

Spurlock, James L, editor. Richard J. Daley: In Memory. Chicago: Manol Press, 1977.

Daley family project archivist

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Dan Harper
Richard J. Daley Library
University of Illinois at Chicago
MC 234
801 S. Morgan St. 3-330
Chicago, IL 60607