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Thursday, March 22, 2012 01:24 pm

The last Illinois statesman

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Former Illinois Senate President Philip J. Rock.
PHOTO BY KEN BURNETTE
Just when it is fashionable to bemoan the loss of bipartisanship in politics, along comes a book that waxes nostalgic for the days when legislators threw punches at each other. Former Illinois Senate President Philip J. Rock’s memoir, Nobody Calls Just to Say Hello, points to a big difference between now and then: once the punches – both verbal and physical – were thrown, combatants could retire to Rock’s Springfield backyard for beer and barbeque.


Rock teamed with Ed Wojcicki, associate chancellor for constituent relations at University of Illinois Springfield, to pen Rock’s remembrances of public life. Rock provides plenty of detail about his 22 years in the Senate, his rise in the Cook County and Illinois Democratic Party organizations and his public service philosophy. What he doesn’t divulge are many personal particulars about his family life or his veering from the priesthood path to politics. Providing those may have given readers an understanding of why and how Rock became what some call one of the state’s last statesmen.

Still, anyone who worked in or around Illinois government from the time Rock joined the Senate in 1970 to his retirement should find the book readable and enlightening for its insider view of the period’s biggest issues. Rock discusses the tussle for tax increases, his passion for protecting children, the once-a-decade debacles of redistricting and the quests for equal rights and economic development. He is fairly frank about his relationships with the mayors Daley, longtime Gov. James R. Thompson, Senate Republican leaders and House Speaker Michael Madigan. Rock’s own political struggles to reach the Senate, become its leader in the “Crazy Eight” era and fight a losing battle to popular Paul Simon for a U.S. Senate seat also receive attention.

Sprinkled throughout are enough anecdotes to make readers reminisce over the antics of such colorful senators as John Knuppel of Petersburg, Sam Vadalabene of Edwardsville and Charles Chew of Chicago. Whether it was Knuppel voting for Winnie the Pooh during the 186-ballot contest for Senate president in 1977, feisty Vadalabene landing a right jab to a Republican senator in 1981 or Chew spouting in 1976 that passage of the Equal Rights Amendment would mean the sexes would have to share bathrooms, Rock reminds us that sometimes politics is more entertaining than late-night comedians can script.

That is not to say Rock doesn’t give us meatier content. The list of principles he says he espoused as a leader could be taken from PoliSci 101: be fair and evenhanded; care about what you’re doing and the people you serve; remember that effective change can take years; choose to have a responsible and reasonable dialogue, especially with people with whom you disagree; take action to make government work for the people for whom it is supposed to work; give everyone a chance to be heard; and don’t be vindictive.

He points out that, for much of his career, he had to be practical because he did not have support to spare. Serving much of that time with Republican Thompson, Rock made it a point to cooperate – something his fellow Democrats did not always appreciate. Fellow Democrat Madigan and Rock had “differences in style and different views of government,” Rock writes, adding that Madigan would likely agree, “though maybe not in the same words.”

Words that all can appreciate for their eloquence appear in a few excerpts from Rock’s floor speeches. Those speeches remind readers why the Senate chamber would quiet when he rose to speak.

After retiring at age 55, Rock tried his hand at lobbying but says he missed being “in the inner offices” and felt awkward in the Capitol. While he continues to enjoy Cubs games, serves on various boards and practices a little law, he also still preaches respect for the institutions of government and the people who haunt them.

Mary Bohlen covered the Illinois Senate for United Press International during some of Rock’s tenure and also worked a year in the Senate Democrats’ press office before joining the faculty of SSU/UIS. 

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