Chicago remembers Jane Byrne, city's only female mayor

Former Chicago mayor Jane Byrne died Friday. Known as 'Calamity Jane,' Byrne speedily hired and fired people from top positions during her single term, beginning in 1979.

Jane Byrne became part of Chicago history when she was elected its first female mayor. She became part of city lore because of how she won: beating an incumbent who voters thought had bungled the reaction to a blizzard that paralyzed the streets.

Byrne was a political novice when she overcame Richard J. Daley's powerful political machine in 1979 for her improbable win over Mayor Michael Bilandic. Byrne, who brought festivals and filmmakers to Chicago during a single term filled with upheaval at City Hall, never held elected office again.

She died Friday at age 81 at a hospice in Chicago, said her daughter, Kathy.

Byrne, who remains Chicago's only female mayor, was branded with nicknames such as "Calamity Jane" as she speedily fired and hired people in such top jobs as police superintendent and press secretary.

"It was chaos," Byrne herself acknowledged in a 2004 Chicago Tribune story, attributing many of the problems to her wresting power from the old-boy Democratic machine that had ruled the city for decades. "Like the spaghetti in a pressure cooker, it was all over the ceiling."

But Byrne was also credited with changing the feel of the city. She started the Taste of Chicago festival and initiated open-air farmers' markets.

"The formula was basic: The more attractions, the more people, the more life for the city," she wrote in her 1994 book, "My Chicago." ''I vowed to bring back the crowds, to make Chicago so lively that the people would return to the heart of the city and its abandoned parks."

It was Byrne who let John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd film "Blues Brothers" in Chicago. She granted Belushi's request to crash a car through a window at Daley Plaza, figuring Daley loyalists didn't like her anyway.

She also helped draw national attention to the infamous Cabrini-Green public housing complex when she and her husband moved into an apartment there for three weeks after a gang war killed 11 residents in three months in 1981.

"How could I put Cabrini on a bigger map?" she wrote in her book. "Suddenly I knew — I could move in there."

By the end of her first year in the mayor's office, Chicago had dealt with transit, fire and school strikes, with Byrne sometimes confronting striking workers on the picket lines.

"The city of Chicago has lost a great trailblazer," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. "From signing the first ordinance to get handguns off of our streets, to bringing more transparency to the city's budget, to creating the Taste of Chicago, Mayor Byrne leaves a large and lasting legacy."

Daley's son, former Mayor Richard M. Daley, called Byrne "a woman of strength, courage and commitment."

"She was a pioneer in public service whose impact on this city will remain for years to come," he said in a statement.

In 1983, Byrne lost her re-election bid to state Sen. Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor.

But with all that occurred during her four years in office, it was the way she got there that was most remarkable. Byrne, who launched her campaign after Bilandic fired her from her City Hall job, was considered the longest of longshots — dismissed by both the press and the Bilandic campaign.

"You cannot expect the media to ignore your opponent even if it is only Jane Byrne," read an internal Bilandic campaign memo released in 2004.

It was Bilandic's handling of a January blizzard that's credited with turning things around for Byrne. The city was covered in 20 inches of snow. Buses and trains couldn't move. Streets were impassable, both for residents and those charged with providing basic services, such as picking up the garbage.

"From the airport to mass transit to simply walking down the street, Chicagoans were frustrated and buried in snow," Byrne wrote in her book.

The next month, voters gave the Democratic nomination for mayor — and for all intents the job itself — to Byrne. She easily won the general election against Republican Wallace Johnson.

Though Byrne took on Daley's machine, she had once worked for his administration. He appointed her as city consumer sales commissioner — the only woman ever named to his Cabinet.

Byrne's first husband, Marine Corps flier William Byrne, died in a plane crash in 1959 when their daughter was 17 months old. Byrne remarried in 1978. Her second husband, Jay McMullen, a former reporter who became her press secretary, died in 1992.

Besides her daughter, she is survived by a grandson.

Byrne also pulled one over on the media. After some reported her age as 80, Kathy Byrne explained that her mother often deliberately gave the wrong year for her birth.

"She wanted to be younger," she said. "Whenever she would see the wrong age she'd say, 'I snookered them again.'"

Associated Press reporter Tammy Webber contributed to this report.

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