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Maggie Daley: She was the ex-mayor’s window to the world

Maggie Daley (third from left) with her husbformer Mayor Richard Daley 2008 salute members Chicago theatre community.

Maggie Daley (third from left) with her husband, former Mayor Richard Daley, at a 2008 salute to members of the Chicago theatre community.

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Updated: December 28, 2011 10:03AM

With her contributions to the arts, education and the city’s landscape, former first lady Maggie Daley’s legacy can be seen, felt and touched around Chicago.

Children play in a park, nature center and concert venue on Northerly Island where once lobbyists and executives flew in and out of Meigs Field. Mayor Daley never gave his wife full credit for his decision to midnight-bulldoze the airport, but few doubt his wife’s desire to see a park there influenced him.

Students read and young couples wed at the Chicago Cultural Center, where Maggie Daley will be waked Sunday. The ornate former library escaped the wrecking ball at least in part because the late first lady was a fan.

And children can be seen painting and creating in After-School Matters, where Maggie Daley’s friends offered remembrances of her Friday following her death Thursday after a nine-year battle with breast cancer.

Maggie Daley may not deserve credit for every Frank Gehry structure or floral median in Chicago, but she arguably served as Chicago’s own Jacqueline Kennedy in terms of inspiring her husband’s interest in the arts and culture.

Presidential adviser David Axelrod helped Mayor Daley win his 1989 campaign and Axelrod on Friday told of worrying about how the less-worldly-than-his-wife Daley would react to a piece of modern art hanging in the news conference room — “beyond the interpretation of us loutish political hacks.”

“And Rich walked into the room — and we didn’t know how he was going to react to this painting — and he said, ‘Oh — Ed Paschke.’ He immediately identified the artist and appreciated the piece,’ ” Axelrod said. “I just assumed that wasn’t from his art history course at De La Salle.

“I think that Maggie had a great influence on him in that way. A lot of the cultural and aesthetic things he did around the city were a result of her influence. It wasn’t just her telling him. He gained an appreciation for things she cared about, and he grew to love them himself. She opened his eyes to a lot of things.”

Maggie Daley did not have to drag her husband to opening-night performances, said Donna LaPietra, a close friend and a driving force behind the creation of Millennium Park.

“You saw an ‘arts agenda’ where one did not exist before except by lip service,” LaPietra said. “He not only said, ‘All right, all right’ — he became an embracer of arts and of performances . . . They became proactive in making sure theaters proliferated and thrived; making sure the Joffrey Ballet not only came here but had a home to come to here.”

Especially after she and her husband moved downtown from Bridgeport, Maggie Daley was a regular on the theater scene.

“She would bring people to our shows,” said Broadway in Chicago President Lou Raizin. “She never traveled in a small group. Just her presence in that audience would make everyone else uplifted. It was really her focus, her commitment, that became almost a family mandate; I see her as being really a weaver in the cultural fabric that is Chicago.”

But calling her Chicago’s Jacqueline Kennedy understates her impact because it wasn’t just on the arts, said Tom Donovan, who served as Mayor Richard J. Daley’s chief of staff and attended Rich and Maggie Daley’s wedding in 1972.

“I know she brought Rich into the arts, but After School Matters is much more important, quite frankly,” Donovan said. “That’s really the forerunner to the effort to make longer hours for teaching today.”

And Maggie Daley was able to successfully marry her interests in arts and education, Ra Joy, executive director of the Illinois Arts Alliance, added. “She was a champion for the arts and for expanding opportunities for young people to find their artistic voice and expanding opportunities in the after-school hours for young people,” said Joy.

So are all those flowers in the medians that out-of-town visitors marvel at simply Rich Daley’s way of giving his wife flowers? “Rich was always into the environment and into trees,” said Donovan.

“Rich had more of a liberal bent than you would have thought in Bridgeport,” he added. “Maggie fit right into that. She was a partner in every way; strong in a positive way for him.”

Rich Daley will go down in history as a mayor determined to make Chicago a player on the world stage culturally and environmentally. And much of the encouragement and inspiration for that, friends say, came from Maggie.

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