Where Were You Then? (12-20-1976)

If you are a Chicagoan of a certain age, you’ll remember where you were when you heard the news, forty years ago today.  I was a substitute teacher in the city public schools.  I’d just finished the day at La Follette School on the West Side when I heard.

But let’s go back a couple of hours and set the scene.

This was the Monday before Christmas, the last day before winter, and it was cold in Chicago.  At around two in the afternoon, police began blocking off the streets near Michigan and Chestnut.  An ambulance had just arrived.  Something big was happening.

12-20-1976--12:30 pm--Mayor Richard J. Daley dedicates Mann Park Field House

12-20-1976–12:30 pm–Mayor Richard J. Daley dedicates Mann Park Field House

On the second floor of the building at 900 North Michigan Avenue, Richard J. Daley was dying.

Daley was 74 years old, in his 21st year as Mayor of Chicago.  He’d been having chest pains over the weekend, and had made an appointment with his doctor. That’s where he was now.

The doctor had examined Daley. You have to be admitted to the hospital immediately, he’d told Daley.  The mayor had phoned one of his sons.  Then, while the doctor was busy making hospital arrangements, the mayor had collapsed.

So now came the paramedics.  Now came the police to set up the barricades.  Now came the Daley family.  Now came the reporters, and the curious public.

12-20-1976--2:30 pm---Richard M. Daley arrives at the docror's office

12-20-1976–2:15 pm—The mayor’s son Rich arrives at the doctor’s office

At 3:50 p.m., the mayor was dead.

The news spread swiftly.  There was shock and disbelief.  Sure, Daley had been sick before.  And like everyone else, he was going to die someday.  But now?  Why now?  And what was going to happen to our city?  It felt like Chicago had suddenly become an orphan.

The wake was held at the parish church in Bridgeport the next day.  As mayor and Democrat Party leader, Daley had gone to hundreds of wakes.  Now his citizens were returning the favor.  The doors at Nativity of Our Lord stayed open all night as 100,000 of us filed past the open coffin.

The all-night wake at Nativity

The all-night wake at Nativity of Our Lord Church

Jimmy Carter, president-elect, came for the funeral Mass.  So did Vice President Rockefeller, Senator Ted Kennedy, and other men of power.  Then Daley left Chicago for the last time, to be buried in the family plot at Holy Sepulchre in Alsip.

Many plans were made to honor Daley.  Some wanted to rename Western Avenue—the city’s longest street—after the city’s longest-serving mayor.  An unincorporated village talked of incorporating as Daley, Illinois.  There was a proposal that a 25-foot statue of the late mayor be erected in the Civic Center plaza.  In time, the actual memorials would be more modest.

“Mayor Daley.”  The phrase had become so common, so indivisible.  A ten-year-old boy was said to have asked his father, “Who’s going to be the mayordaley now?”

One man died, but Chicago lived on.  And eventually got a mayordaley named Daley.

—30—

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2 Responses to “Where Were You Then? (12-20-1976)”


  1. 1 Brian December 20, 2016 at 11:32 pm

    Thanks John…I was in 6th grade…I remember Ron Hunter reporting the story on Ch 5…..i remember they kept showing the show of an ambulance rushing down the street

  2. 2 benson December 21, 2016 at 1:46 pm

    Saw this tweet yesterday from the Trib’s Phil Rosenthal:

    My dad implied I was naive 40 yrs ago today for thinking Mayor Daley’s death felt like losing a relative. Losing dad 9 days later proved it.

    For me, I was a fledgling broadcast student at SIU, and 12-20-76 was going to be my first night anchoring the news on WSIU-TV. Many of us were Chicago kids, so we knew how big a story this was. Fortunately we had staffers in the city for Christmas break, so we had a few reports from on the scene. It was a crazy day. But we managed to get the story on the air.


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