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Who Was Chicago's Youngest Alderman? A Famous Future Colonel Won at Age 23

By Ted Cox | March 2, 2015 5:40am
 Col. Robert McCormick, former Tribune publisher, appears to be the youngest Chicago alderman on record. He was 23 when elected in the 21st Ward in 1904.
Col. Robert McCormick, former Tribune publisher, appears to be the youngest Chicago alderman on record. He was 23 when elected in the 21st Ward in 1904.
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Chicago Public Library

THE LOOP — The election of 26-year-old Carlos Ramirez-Rosa as 35th Ward alderman prompts an interesting question: Will he be the youngest Chicago alderman ever?

As it turns out, he's close, but not young enough.

At least a few were definitely younger, including Ald. Edward Burke (14th), the longest-serving member in City Council history, who was 25 when he won a special election to replace his deceased father, Joseph Burke, in 1969. Ald. Edward Scholl (41st) was also 25 when elected in 1963, according to a Tribune obituary.

Who was younger? According to records at the Harold Washington Library, it's none other than Col. Robert McCormick, longtime publisher of the Tribune, who was 23 when elected 21st Ward alderman in 1904.

 Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is a 26-year-old first-time politician who unseated longtime incumbent Ald. Rey Colon Tuesday in the 35th Ward race.
Carlos Ramirez-Rosa is a 26-year-old first-time politician who unseated longtime incumbent Ald. Rey Colon Tuesday in the 35th Ward race.
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Ted Cox details McCormick's storied history:

The book "The Common Council," by Arthur Lindell, says McCormick was "probably the youngest alderman to be elected" in Chicago. It will never be certain, as birth records were less than exact back in the formative days of Chicago in the 19th century, but McCormick appears to be the youngest alderman on record.

"I've always seen McCormick cited as the youngest alderman, but I'm hesitant to vouch for its accuracy," said Timothy Samuelson, the city's cultural historian, on Monday. "To my knowledge, there hasn't been comprehensive contemporary research done on statistics like this relating to the City Council."

Yet McCormick appears to be the youngest on record by all available sources, and Dick Simpson, professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, called that "amazing." The former alderman and author of "Rogues, Rebels and Rubber Stamps," a history of the council, said, "I don't know of anyone younger."

Peter Alter of the Chicago History Museum said in some ways that's surprising, but in other ways it's not.

"He was always involved in politics, in one way or another. So for him to be the youngest alderman in Chicago history kind of fits what we know about him now."

According to Dominic Pacyga, history professor at Columbia College Chicago, that would also be consistent with what we know about the Council in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"The City Council was supposedly the more powerful part of the system, at least until 1931," he said, when Anton Cermak was elected mayor. And the Council was filled with two different types of politicians, both of which stressed a certain amount of experience.

"In the 19th century, it was often seen as noblesse oblige" to serve in politics, Pacyga said. "So it was people who were in the business community, etc., for some time."

It was an era of "city fathers" and "gentleman politicians," Alter said, and McCormick would have fit right in, even as a young man. He was born into a well-to-do and renowned Chicago family, as the grand-nephew of inventor Cyrus McCormick and the grandson of Tribune publisher and former Mayor Joseph Medill.

"He had the money to be an alderman without being a 'Hinky Dink' Kenna," Alter added, referencing one of Chicago's most notorious aldermen.

The way the city boomed after the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 opened the Council to bribery and corruption, as depicted in "Lords of the Levee," Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan's study of 1st Ward Aldermen Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna and "Bathhouse" John Coughlin, but again, a certain level of experience was required to gain a place at the trough.

Those sorts of aldermen "were called the 'gray wolves,'" Pacyga said, "because they supposedly ran in packs and devoured people and took their money."

Yet even that generation of aldermen who came to power then, such as Coughlin and "Big Bill" Thompson, later the city's last Republican mayor, were in their early 30s when first elected. It just wasn't an age that lent itself to political youth movements. Similarly, it might not have been something the city's youngest alderman ever wanted attached to his name. In "The Colonel," Richard Norton Smith's biography, it's never mentioned that McCormick might have been the youngest alderman, although no one any younger is mentioned, either.

McCormick's biography at the First Division Museum at Cantigny, in suburban Wheaton, confirms his birthday and being elected alderman in 1904. He served one term before becoming president of the Sanitary District board. When that five-year term ended, he apparently decided it would be more fun to run a newspaper and took control of the Tribune.

"It was probably more profitable," Pacyga said.

The reform backlash that sometimes struck voters also helped to place McCormick in the Council at a young age in the first decade of the 1900s.

"McCormick sees himself as something of a reformer," Pacyga said, "even though he's kind of a nut."

McCormick was an infamously rancorous Republican who later led newspaper crusades against President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, as well as President Harry Truman's Fair Deal, and of course he presided over the Tribune at the time it declared, "Dewey Defeats Truman," as its banner headline in the 1948 presidential election.

McCormick took such pride in serving in World War I and taking part in the battle of Cantigny in France that he named his Wheaton estate Cantigny, which later became the First Division Museum. (Movie and military buffs might know the unit by its nickname, "The Big Red One.")

McCormick was promoted to colonel and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, but there's some debate over how distinguished his service actually was. Cantigny was the last military battle he engaged in, and there were reports he shelled more U.S. troops than Germans there.

McCormick was reportedly prevailed upon by a Republican committeeman to run for alderman. Speaking of committeemen, Burke does appear to be the city's youngest ever, having been elected 14th Ward Democratic committeeman at 24 after his father's death in May 1968. Yet it wasn't until a year later that he succeeded his father as alderman in a special election. Otherwise he might be in the running for youngest alderman on record.

Simpson said such a delay to hold a special election was common at the time. Burke also led a youth movement in the late '60s and early '70s that saw Ed Vrdolyak and Bill Singer elected as aldermen, as well as Simpson himself, still in his 20s when he joined the Council 1971. Yet none of those were younger than McCormick had been when elected.

The City Council potentially is seeing another youth movement this year. Of the seven millennials under 30 who ran for the City Council this year, one — Ramirez-Rosa — was elected, and four others are in runoffs April 7: John Kozlar in the 11th Ward; Stephanie Coleman in the 16th; Kevin Bailey in the 20th; and Omar Aquino in the 36th.

But, even if any of them are elected, none would top McCormick's apparent record.

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