Eugene Schulter has been alderman of the 47th Ward for nearly a quarter century and four and a half years ago became its undisputed boss. But long before the ward, which includes most of North Center and Lincoln Square, was taken over by a Mayor Daley loyalist and one of the most cautious cats in the City Council it had a much different kind of politician at its helm—a fiery Republican who railed against Machine politics and gave the first Mayor Daley fits. His name was John J. Hoellen Jr. and he belonged to a political species that's almost extinct now: good government Republicans.
Imagine that. There's still one Republican in the City Council—Alderman Brian Doherty of the 41st Ward, on the far northwest side. But he's hardly a reformer. His chief accomplishment lies in ensuring that the City Council is a bipartisan rubber stamp.
Hoellen, on the other hand, was a two-fisted scrapper who loved a fight almost as much as he loved reporters, for whom he almost always had a spicy quote. He was the son of 47th Ward alderman and Republican committeeman John Hoellen Sr., who ran a shoe store at 1938 W. Irving Park, in the middle of what was for generations one of the biggest German enclaves in the city. The younger Hoellen lived in the area his whole life, eventually dying in the same house at 1842 W. Larchmont, just south of Irving Park and Wolcott, where he'd grown up.
- Jon Randolph
- Eugene Schulter
When his father died in 1936, Hoellen Jr. was a 22-year-old law school student at Northwestern. It wasn't until 1947, after stints in the military and the Illinois attorney general's office, that he ran to win his father's old aldermanic seat from the new incumbent, Frank O. Hilburn. You could say his political career began with a bang, or a shotgun blast. According to a Tribune account at the time, hours after Hoellen filed to run for the office, a "mysterious" man in an overcoat tried to shoot him outside his home. He avoided injury when a button on his coat "took the force of the charge," police told reporters. No one was ever picked up for the shooting.
That was eight years before Richard J. Daley was elected, when the current mayor was only five years old. But then as now the city was a cesspool of corruption and inside deals. In his aldermanic campaign, Hoellen vowed to clean it all up. Voters apparently decided to let him try.
Once in office, Hoellen became a City Council fixture, known for fiery speeches in which he denounced waste, corruption, and inefficiencies with a red face and trembling voice. He tag-teamed with the occasional liberal Democrat—most notably the legendary independent alderman Leon Despres—to vote against tax hikes and call for investigations into hiring scandals and questionable land deals. He was one of three aldermen who in 1961 dared to vote against the urban renewal plan that cleared Little Italy from the path of the oncoming University of Illinois at Chicago. And he obsessively pestered Daley to account for how he spent money that wasn't reflected in the budget. In 1975, when Daley unilaterally proposed to rebuild Soldier Field—without seeking City Council approval—Hoellen thundered: "Who does Daley think he is? Julius Caesar?" Then he wisecracked: "He should at least check it out with the City Council. Although composed largely of trained seals, it should nevertheless be consulted."
One of his most prescient political stances—and lowest rhetorical points—came in 1965, when he voted against the construction of several public housing high-rises in different parts of the south side. His argument, which turned out to be right, was that they would turn into vertical slums. But he created a firestorm when he bellowed in the midst of the debate: "This is primarily Negro housing. Everybody knows the Negro loves the good soil. He likes the feel of dirt and the smell of trees."
Council debates aren't what they used to be. Next, as the Tribune reported, "Alderman Claude W.B. Holman (4th), a Negro, interrupted him to shout: 'You are maligning the whole Negro race. To say they love the dirt is an insult to me and all the Negroes. I'm just as clean as you are.'" Hoellen tried to protest that he was looking out for recent African-American migrants from the south, but Holman called him a bigot. Those high-rises got built.
- John Hoellen Jr.
Occasionally, Hoellen came off as a little goofy, at least by today's standards. In 1965 he led the charge to have James Baldwin's novel Another Country removed from a Wright College reading list on the grounds that its interracial and homosexual themes were "filthy." On that issue, at least, most of the aldermen joined him. Two years later he assailed the Picasso statue outside of what's now known as the Daley Center, calling it a "monstrosity" and a "heroic monument to some dead dodo" that should be replaced by a stature of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks.
Hoellen thirsted for higher office, but he never made it out of the council. He ran for mayor, county clerk, and Congress (three times), losing every race. "I'm a politician," he told reporters. "When the bugle calls, I come running."
As alderman, however, he was virtually unbeatable—though Daley tried. In 1959, the mayor got 1,000 people to pay $25 each for a fund-raiser for George Wells, his handpicked challenger to Hoellen. Hoellen still prevailed, as he did in 1963, 1967, and 1971.
In 1968 Daley anointed Ed Kelly, soon to be named general superintendent of the Park District, as the ward's Democratic committeeman, the party's ward boss. In those days the job consisted of building and marshaling a patronage army that could deliver the vote on Election Day—and the better the results, the more jobs and power were granted from the mayor. Kelly was just what Daley was looking for. He handed out Park District jobs and chipped away at Hoellen's base, and by 1975 he had enough campaign workers to oust this gadfly once and for all. All he needed was a candidate.