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Political voice, social activist Thomas Roeser dies at 82

Thomas Roeser

Thomas Roeser

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Updated: July 7, 2011 3:04PM

Thomas F. Roeser, a former contributing Chicago Sun-Times columnist, founder of the online Chicago Daily Observer and radio and TV talk-show host who was active in civic, religious and social causes, died Sunday. He was 82.

Mr. Roeser had suffered health problems and had retired from his WLS-AM radio talk show on May 21 due to his hospitalization.

Chris Robling, a friend and fellow board member with Mr. Roeser at the City Club of Chicago and at Haymarket Center, a rehabilitation center, said Sunday that Mr. Roeser always showed “a ton of verve” and “an excitement about anyone with big ideas.”

Though Mr. Roeser looked like a corporate executive, he was thoroughly anti-status-quo, Robling said.

“He was ‘Tea Party’ long before there was a Tea Party,” Robling said.

Robling said Mr. Roeser, a native of Evanston, discovered his anti-establishment side after he got into a dispute with the Nixon administration while serving as an assistant commerce secretary. Mr. Roeser believed the powers-that-be were not serious about the program he led, which provided help to minority businesses. While in Washington, D.C., Mr. Roeser befriended Andrew Young and Maynard Jackson, both former mayors of Atlanta and civil rights activists.

After Mr. Roeser left the Nixon administration, he became “the radical Republican reformer,” Robling said.

Robling also credited Mr. Roeser with keeping the City Club alive during fallow years in the 1980s, and supporting many other local institutions.

Jay Doherty, president of the City Club of Chicago, has spent his 17 years as president with Roeser as chairman.

“Tom led the way for the City Club of Chicago to be Illinois’ premier public policy forum,” said Doherty, who had known Roeser for 35 years.

Roeser’s constant reading on politics and government gave him an edge in recommending the best, most cutting-edge speakers and topics for the club, Doherty said.

“Tom had read every book imaginable,” Doherty said.

Doherty said Roeser was a true family man, devoted to his wife, Lillian, and his children. “Tom could be a very gruff guy, but once you got past the big bark, he was a soft, gentle husband, father and friend.”

Mr. Roeser, a former reporter and Republican Party communications director, wrote “Father Mac: The Life and Times of Ignatius D. McDermott,” co-founder of the Haymarket Center. His career included serving as assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce in the Nixon administration, service as vice president of government relations at the Quaker Oats Co., teaching at local universities and founding Project LEAP, an anti-vote fraud organization.

Mary Anne Hackett, a friend of 25 years who co-founded with Mr. Roeser the Catholic Citizens of Illinois, called Mr. Roeser “a dynamo” and “Renaissance man” who told dynamic stories that incorporated history and his well-known self-deprecation.

“He told how, as a cub reporter in Minnesota, his first big assignment was to interview Eleanor Roosevelt, who had flown into the local small airport,” said Hackett, the former 20-year president of the Illinois Right to Life Committee. “(Mr. Roeser) said he was so nervous, and Mrs. Roosevelt helped him with the interview.”

“He was just so dynamic,” Hackett said. “He was eager to get out and change the world.”

Hackett said Mr. Roeser also “was a great defender of his Catholic faith.”

“He really knew his faith. He wrote articles and could quote from the history of the church,” she said.

Steve Huntley, Sun-Times columnist and former editorial page editor who brought Mr. Roeser on as a contributing columnist in mid-1998, said, “Tom was a passionate, articulate advocate and explainer of the conservative point of view on the important issues of the day.

“Never one to mince words, he challenged the policy positions not just of Democrats and liberals but also of Republicans when they strayed from sound conservative principles,” Huntley said. “Tom’s passion for politics was matched by his compassion for the unfortunate in our society, as was evidenced by his work on behalf of the Haymarket Center.”

Ray Soucek, president of Chicago-based Haymarket Center, which operates on a $23 million yearly budget and serves 18,000 substance abusers at its six sites, said Mr. Roeser had become his mentor and a great supporter since Mr. Roeser joined the center’s board in the early 1990s.

“He was a brilliant, controversial, loving, caring man, and he carried us through some extremely rough times,” Soucek said, noting that Mr. Roeser helped raise money, contributed on his own and introduced Haymarket to influential people who became supporters.

“He had no fear of standing up for traditional beliefs, and people respected that,” Soucek said.

Drew Hayes, operations director at WLS/Chicago, said, “Tom Roeser was a valued member of the WLS on-air lineup for 17 years.

“He was heard primarily in his regular Sunday night slot where listeners could participate in his radio ‘plebiscites,’ weighing in on the political issues of the week past, and looking forward to the week ahead,” he said. “He was devoted to his principles and stalwart in his advocacy, respected by friend and foe alike.”

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