Former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski remembered as pillar of power who was generous, if flawed
CHICAGO – Inside the Chicago church where he was baptized and confirmed, former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski was remembered Tuesday as a guy from the neighborhood who just happened to be one of the most powerful men in the nation.
An 18-term congressman whose illustrious political career ended with an ignominious corruption conviction and prison stint, Rostenkowski grew to be one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress. He was credited with pushing through a 1986 overhaul of the nation's tax system and leading the 1983 effort to rescue Social Security from insolvency.
His funeral Mass — which was attended by hundreds of people including Mayor Richard Daley and New York Congressman Charles Rangel — was a formal send-off for a one-time pillar of American power. But it felt like a gathering of old friends, who told stories about a man known as "Poppi" to his only grandson and as "Danny," ''Rosty" and "Boss," to his former colleagues and friends.
"Our friend Dan Rostenkowski had deep roots, deep roots in this community. He never forgot Chicago or Illinois," said Monsignor Ken Velo in the homily. "He was big in our hearts."
Rostenkowski, who died Aug. 11 of lung cancer, was buried hours later in St. Adalbert Cemetery in the suburb of Niles.
He served in Congress from 1959 until 1995, including a stint as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He is credited locally for helping secure federal funding for costly public works projects, including the transformation of Chicago's Navy Pier into a recreational area and the construction of a train line to O'Hare International Airport.
"You can drive through the city and see evidence of Dan Rostenkowski's work," Daley said. "His values were Chicago."
Daley described how Rostenkowski would drive — not fly — back to Chicago from Washington in a carpool of congressmen each week. They would travel all night and take turns sleeping in order to make sure they were present for a Friday morning meeting with Daley's father, former Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Rostenkowski was born into a politically prominent family — his father was a city alderman — in the Chicago's Pulaski Park neighborhood, once the heart of the city's thriving Polish community that helped Rostenkowski first get elected to Congress in 1958.
He lived across the street from St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, an ornate 1867 structure that was the city's first Polish church. Rostenkowski was baptized and confirmed in the church, he attended services there throughout his life and it became a symbol of his political power.
When the Kennedy Expressway was being built with his help in the late 1950s, Rostenkowski proposed realigning its route to skirt the church. He got his wish, and the highway was diverted.
"This could be called Rostenkowski's curve," Velo said of the bend in the roadway.
During his homily, Velo made a veiled reference to the political scandal that brought an end to Rostenkowski's 36 years in Congress. A Washington grand jury charged the congressman in 1992 with 17 counts of misusing government and campaign funds. He eventually pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud in 1996 and was sentenced to 17 months in prison.
"Was he a saint? I don't think so," Velo said during the homily. "Was he a sinner? Aren't we all?"
Other friends, including one-time staff member and former Chicago alderman Terry Gabinski, described a generous man with a gruff exterior whose generosity wasn't always well-known.
He said Rostenkowski gave at least $150,000 each year to the church and friends coming to visit would rarely leave without a gift, even if it was just shampoo.
"I thought he was John Wayne. Big. Strong. Tough," said Gabinski. "But I don't know if John Wayne had a soft heart, but the Boss did."