Congressman Daniel Rostenkowski: his legacy, like the man, is big

Date: 
08/13/2010
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With the Capitol behind them, Daniel Rostenkowski (r) and Rev. Walter Wilczek, Gordon Tech High School principal in 1967

Former Illinois Democratic Congressman, Dan Rostenkowski, died in his summer home in Lake Benedict, WI, on Aug. 11. He served in the U.S. House for more than thirty-five years then returned home to support his Chicago Polish community in Noble Square.

Daniel David Rostenkowski was born in Chicago on Jan. 2, 1928, the only son and youngest of three children. The grandson of Polish immigrants, Dan grew up in the family's building on Evergreen Avenue, a tiny half block, and right across from the St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church on Noble St. just north of Division. Over the years this small area of Noble Square housed Rostenkowski family businesses including a tavern and remained Rostenkowski's home for the rest of his life. His father, Joseph P. Rostenkowski was the 32nd ward's alderman from 1933 to 1955. In 1949, his mother, Priscilla R. Rostenkowski, died two years before her son was elected.

Dan "Rosty" Rostenkowski attended St. John's Military Academy, in Delafield, Wisconsin, and then served in Korea with the U.S. Army's 7th Infantry Division until 1948. He continued his education at Loyola University in Chicago. Just before graduating he married LaVerne Pirkins in May 1951 and was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in November. He served as a member of the Illinois State Senate from 1954 to 1956. Rostenkowski became the youngest member of the 86th Congress following his November 1958 election to the U.S. House of Representatives. He went on to serve a total of 18-terms over thirty years. During this long rain in politics, Dan Rostenkowski gained the name "Mr. Chairman."

Rostenkowski's influence on Capitol Hill started eroding in 1992, when a federal grand jury began investigating reports of wrongdoing in the House post office. In 1994, he was formally charged with seventeen counts of abusing his Congressional payroll by paying at least fourteen people who did little or no official work; trading stamp vouchers for at least $50,000 in cash; misusing his office's expense accounts to charge Congress for $40,000 in furniture and fine china and crystal; misusing personal vehicles and paying for them with $70,000 in House funds; and obstruction of justice.

Mr. Rostenkowski was quoted as saying "I did not commit any crimes. My conscience is clear, and my 42-year record as an elected official is one I am proud to once again run on." Soon after, he pleaded guilty to two counts of misuse of public funds.

He was then quoted as saying, "I personally have come to accept the fact that sometimes one person gets singled out, to be held up by law enforcement as an example. I simply have to accept that, and move onward with my life.

In his book, Mr. Chairman, biographer James Merriner, a political journalist for the Chicago Sun Times describes Rostenkowski as "a great man who was also a little man, a statesman and a crook, an emotional man, an American original."

In 1996, Rostenkowski underwent treatment for prostate cancer right before he began serving his sentence at the Federal Medical Center for prisoners in Rochester, MN. After recovering from his cancer treatment, he was transferred to the Federal Correctional Institution in Oxford, WI serving out the remainder of his 17-month term.  President Clinton pardoned him in December 2000.

Rostenkowski predicated that his obituary would focus more on his time in jail.

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Congressional colleagues in 1961, Rostenkowski (r), John Kluczynski, and Clement Zablocki

Along with many other Chicagoans, the current 32nd Ward Alderman, Scott Waguespack, focuses on the great things Rostenkowski did for the city of Chicago. Waguespack said, "Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Rostenkowski family during this difficult time. 'The Chairman' will be a great part of Chicago's political history and despite his wrongdoings toward the end of his career; he provided many things for the people of this city and the state over his decades in Washington. Neighbors and friends in the 32nd Ward saw him as a good neighbor and I know he was still taking care of the things on his block and working with my office to help neighbors. He was an old school politician, working for Chicago throughout the Cold War and during a time when the country was rapidly building up its infrastructure. We should remember him for all the accomplishments that he provided for our city, state and nation."

His list of accomplishments and his lifetime of service cast a larger shadow than his jail time. He was known for politically maneuvering huge amounts of federal cash to the Chicago region that went towards repaving the Kennedy Expressway, expanding the CTA and building the massive Deep Tunnel flood relief program. He launched the federal passenger facility taxes that airline customer's pay, which created funds that helped rebuild O'Hare International and Midway airports. He helped write the legislation that created Medicare in 1966. As the committee's chairman, he helped fashion laws on taxes, trade and welfare. In 1983, he brokered the deal that led to the passage of a bill that kept the Social Security system solvent.

A local member of St. Stanislaus Kostka Catholic Church recalls Rostenkowski's quiet donation to the church's 125th anniversary. She also said that for generations the family has occupied several buildings just across the street from the church, including a home and office that Dan still occupied. He had a fondness for this niche community tucked nearly under the Kennedy expressway; he generously donated to the community and to a dog park on Noble and Blackhawk.

Also in the community Rostenkowski grew up in is the Polish Museum of America. In 1992, Congressman Rostenkowski received the prestigious Polish Spirit Award from the Museum at its annual Summer Ball. The museum has extended its deepest sympathy to Mrs. Rostenkowski and the Rostenkowski Family upon the passing of the former Congressman.

Maria Ciesla, President of the Polish Museum of America, reflects, "We like to think that he visited the Polish Roman Catholic Union and Polish Museum of America building many times as a boy, because his grandfather, Peter Rostenkowski, was a PRCUA President, and because of his family's close proximity to the PRCUA/PMA." Ms. Ciesla also said Rostenkowski visited the Museum several times, especially during the PRCUA presidency of Edward Dykla.  Rostenkowski's last visit was as the keynote speaker at the opening of the Congressman Roman Pucinski exhibit in 2009.

Rostenkowski was 82 and suffered from long battle with lung cancer.  He is survived by his wife, LaVerne; three daughters; Gayle, Dawn and Kristie, all of whom use the last name Rosten; and a grandson. His youngest daughter, Stacy Rosten-McDarrah, preceded his death in 2007.

Funeral services will be held at St. Stanislaus Kostka Church in Chicago's Noble Square neighborhood just kiddy corner from his family home. The church will host a public wake for Rostenkowski on Monday Aug. 16 from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. The funeral service will be Tues. at 10 a.m. The burial will follow at St. Adalbert Cemetery in Niles.

Photos courtesy of the Polish Museum of America

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