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Thursday, Oct. 21, 2004 12:23 pm

His way with words

The late Chicago journalist Steve Neal was hailed as a watchdog at last Thursday's dedication of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, although some of his subjects remember him more as a bulldog.

The veteran Sun-Times columnist's coverage of alleged cronyism is credited with forcing a major shakeup in the leadership of the $150 million library and museum project. A noted historian and author who committed suicide in February at age 54, Neal published his first exposé three years ago this month. He devoted nearly a dozen columns to berating then-Gov. George Ryan for "hijacking" the project and threatening to make it a political "patronage dump" for his "flunkies and cronies."

Neal's unflinching coverage led to several key resignations and new appointments at the library, the most celebrated being the courtship of renowned historian Richard Norton Smith, a friend of Neal's, to lead the project.

"Richard Norton Smith is in Springfield today because of Steve Neal's influence,' says U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria.

For his efforts, a host of state dignitaries last week dedicated the Steve Neal Reading Room, which faces Sixth Street on the 100,000-square-foot facility's ground floor. Much of Neal's private book collection has been donated to the library, and his portrait hangs on the room's west wall.

"Steve Neal had a hand in leaving something behind that will last forever," said Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was joined by several of Neal's family members and former Gov. Jim Edgar, Comptroller Dan Hynes, and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

Durbin, a Springfield resident, proved gracious and diplomatic during the ceremony, though he was often a target of Neal's strongest invective.

During the period in which Neal blew the roof off the library-and-museum project, he was also lobbing grenades at the man who first proposed the idea of a Lincoln presidential library some 20 years ago.

"He was my harshest critic," Durbin told Illinois Times after last week's dedication ceremony. "Of the negative columns written on me in my political life, he wrote 95 percent of them."

In Neal's columns, Durbin was a "whining," "moaning," "inept," "no-clout" "blowhard"; a "long-winded," "pudgy huckster" whose "mind is unburdened by original thought."

Neal dubbed Durbin "Senator Flipper" for changing positions on issues ranging from abortion to campaign-finance reform to the expansion O'Hare International Airport and pounded him with such zingers as: "He is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Senate. Durbin is without relevance and gets no respect."

Durbin garnered some laughs last week, saying, "I made it a point to read Steve Neal's column every day. Most times, I thought they were great.

"A few, I took exception to."

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library is open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday; 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Wednesday; and 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. The adjoining museum is slated to open in the spring.

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