BRIDGEPORT — John Daley had just graduated from grade school when the head of De La Salle Institute arrived at the hallowed front steps of the Daley household.
“I remember it was in May ... the doorbell rang and it was the principal and I was thinking 'Holy s---, Rich must really be in trouble,'" Daley said.
Turns out, the principal caught wind that young John was opting for St. Ignatius College Prep instead of De Le Salle, which had seen a long line of Chicago mayors and Daley men grace the halls — first by the Boss Richard J. Daley himself, followed by Richard and Michael.
But John broke rank.
“I told him I liked Ignatius, nothing against De La Salle — matter of fact my son Mike went there, loved it — but I just wanted something different,” said John Daley.
The anecdote, delivered over bites of Irish soda bread in his office at the County Building Downtown, is perhaps just a small glimpse of what makes John Daley a little different than his older sisters and remarkably successful brothers — all of whom have left the Bridgeport neighborhood.
Ask the longtime Democratic Party honcho why he’s chosen to stay on the South Side and his answers veer into classic Daley-isms: Thoughts are started, interrupted and restarted with sharp turns in topic. Eventually the answer lands here:
“I liked it. I enjoyed the neighborhood. I grew up there. I thought it was very convenient. Accessibility. All the major expressways,” Daley said. “Everyone talks about the politics. But it isn’t just the politics. It’s the friends I’ve made there. I have friends who I’ve still went to grade school with and live with in a five-minute radius of me.”
And Daley, 67, has lived in five-minute radius of his upbringing at his parents' famous, police-guarded brick bungalow at 35th and Lowe, first moving to 38th Street and Union Avenue then back to the 3700 block of Lowe.
Living in the neighborhood means he's always just a short stroll away from his Halsted Street insurance business, the 11th Ward headquarters and Nativity of Our Lord Catholic church, where he’s still a loyal parishioner.
The Rev. Michael Flynn is a longtime priest at Nativity. He called John "the friendliest of all the Daleys," adding that "he’s very well thought-of here and intimately wrapped up in the people here."
Because unlike his brothers, who might pop back into Bridgeport for, say, a gala thrown in their honor or the occasional wake of an old Bridgeport friend, John Daley remains a neighborhood staple.
He’s a regular at CAPS meetings and at Schaller’s Pump. He takes constitutional walks around the winding paths of Henry Palmisano Park and counts Nana Organic, Bridgeport Bakery and Impallaria Bakery as his favorite hangouts.
He and his wife Mary Lou raised their three children there.
It’s a low-key, approachable existence for such a high-profile, powerful man.
Since 1980, Daley has been the Democratic Party’s 11th Ward committeeman and has since 1994 chaired the county’s finance department, a post he acquired two years after his appointment to the county board.
Prior to that, he served terms in the Illinois House and Senate, each time taking over spots in the General Assembly held by lifelong, loyal Bridgeport guys: first by replacing Rep. John Vitek and later Sen. Tim Degnan, who left his post to become Mayor Richard M. Daley's right-hand man.
Yet he's always remained in Bridgeport, which is undergoing a cultural influx led by craft beer bars, coffee shops, art galleries and acclaimed restaurants, a turnaround hardly anyone but the Daley clan seemed to expect.
"I remember when my dad died, when [former Mayor Michael] Bilandic lost and when Rich moved out. People would say 'the neighborhood's going to be changed' and that 'people won't stay here.' But they did. I keep stressing it’s the strong families of our communities that make our neighborhood great. And it isn’t just one family. It’s all of the various ethnic, the very ethnic part," he said.
Today, the 11th Ward is still very much a stronghold of Irish and Italian-American families. But it's also shifting, with more Chinese-Americans settling here alongside hipsters in search of cheap rent and condo-dwellers moving into upscale single-family homes.
The Daley family's influence might not might not loom as large as it used to, but some relatives are still here, including the commissioner's son John, who helps run the insurance business, and his nephew, Metropolitan Water District commissioner Patrick Daley Thompson, who lives at the 35th and Lowe home.
Taken together, it's snapshot of a neighborhood in transition, with many residents holding onto the area's political past but making room for the future.
And that just might be the legacy of the Daley brother who forged his own path by staying put.