Elected officials and their staff, clergy, family and friends gathered Tuesday to pack the Cook County Board room in honor of Cook County Commissioner Robert Steele (D-2), who represented his district on the city’s South and West Sides since 2006. Steele passed away earlier this month just shy of his 56th birthday. Colleagues and mentees remembered Steele as a true servant, dogged in his pursuits, who cared deeply for the most in need in his district and his neighborhood of North Lawndale.
President Toni Preckwinkle, a friend and ally of Steele’s, guided the day’s tributes, with former Board President Bobbie Steele, Robert’s mother, at her side. Steele’s three children sat behind them on the dais. Steele’s desk, with his staffers seated nearby, was covered in white and pink flowers. The entrance to the County Building and the hallway to board offices were draped in purple.
The standing-room only crowd laughed and cried at memories of the “Man of Steele,” who’d often admonish critics or staff with an, “I got this!” and could redirect questions about his battle with diabetes, his kidney transplant, or his rehabilitation after a leg amputation with a smile, joke, or a question in turn.
The room grew especially emotional as long-time staffers for Steele stepped up to the microphone. Staffer David Evers said just four weeks ago, Steele made it to his wedding, despite battling illness. “He was the epitome of selflessness.” He said Steele was like family, a father figure.
His Chief of Staff Melva Brownlee’s voice broke as she looked back on her decade working with Steele. “He gave a little girl from the West Side of Chicago an opportunity to serve, to advocate, to fight for those who didn’t have a voice to fight.” Others said Steele paved the way for dozens of other West Siders to get jobs or back on the right foot.
Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24), said Steele–better known as “Spoody” to the young people he worked with–played a key role in his own political life. Both worked together at the Chicago Park District, and “when I was elected, it was great comfort to have Robert as a mentor and a friend and more like a family member. We had a unique triad in 24th Ward, 2nd District and 9th State Rep. seat,” he said. “Myself, Art Turner Jr. and Comm. Steele all grew up in North Lawndale and all came back to serve. It’s a legacy of service, that legacy all came from our parents.”
Fellow commissioners recalled him as a collaborator who was also ready to take tough votes and put in time to improve county agencies–the Forest Preserve, Health and Hospitals System, and Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. Republican Comm. Tim Schneider’s (R-14) voice caught several times during his comments, recalling how Steele never complained, even when he was likely in pain. “I don’t think I heard him say a harsh word to anybody… I didn’t know he was that ill. I don’t think any of us knew he was that ill.”
The proceedings’ only hiccup was an early interruption before the meeting was called to order from meeting fixture George Blakemore, who demanded to speak on the resolution honoring Steele, yelling that it was an open meeting. Blakemore made some disparaging remarks about Steele, with whom he often sparred during the public comment period. Blakemore called him a “mean man”. Steele would often shout back to Blakemore, demanding he stay on-topic. Blakemore was escorted out by Sheriff’s police and did not return to the Board Room.
There were plenty of happy memories–Steele piping in fellow Comm. Jerry “Iceman” Butler’s (D-3) hits over the speakers during late-night budget wrangling, a joke to Comm. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-7) about “Mexicans being the only ones with the you-know-whats to name their children Jesus,” and chides of “Boy, I can’t stand you!” to Comm. Stanley Moore (D-4).
“Sometimes the good die young, and Robert was one of the best,” Comm. Butler said.
Steele’s visitation is Friday, June 30 at Lawndale Community Church from 5:00 p.m. until 8:00 p.m. His wake is on Saturday, July 1 from 10:00 a.m., with the funeral to follow at 11:30 a.m. at Freedom Baptist Church. Flowers can be sent to the Wallace Broadview Funeral Home. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Greater Westside Community Coalition.
The replacement process won’t begin until after the July 4th holiday, selection committee chair Ald. Michael Scott said. More on that process here.