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Chicagoans pay their respects to Maggie Daley

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley left looks his daughter Norwhile standing next casket Daley's wife Maggie during Maggie Daley's wake

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley, left, looks at his daughter, Nora, while standing next to the casket of Daley's wife, Maggie, during Maggie Daley's wake at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 29, 2011 8:10AM

Thousands of people made a pilgrimage to the Chicago Cultural Center Sunday to pay respects to Maggie Daley, the city’s former first lady, a turnout that demonstrated not only the love of her friends but also her stature among strangers.

Many of the mourners did not know her personally. But whether it was to applaud her support for the arts, honor her courage in fighting cancer or celebrate her cheerful spirit, they said they felt her loss almost like a member of her family.

Diana Marta of the South Loop said that while she never met Mrs. Daley, she had a kinship with her. Marta is a breast cancer survivor. “I am in awe of her. You never saw her suffering. You only saw her courage,” Marta said.

Joanna Weiss of Streeterville said she was drawn to the Cultural Center because Maggie Daley was “a champion of the arts. She helped save this building. The city won’t be the same without her.”

The first person in line was Bob Cardella of Mount Prospect, a former longtime Bridgeport resident who knew the Daley family. Maggie “was the heart of Chicago,” he said. “She did so much for the city.”

His wife Nancy said, “She was just an inspiration,” adding, “It’s just like she was a member of your family.”

They said they arrived at the Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, at 9:30 a.m. to get their choice spot. By noon, when the public wake began, the line stretched around three sides of the Cultural Center, from its Washington side to Randolph.

For much of the day, the mourners waited in light rain. They slowly made their way inside and upstairs to Preston Bradley Hall, a room brightened by its Tiffany dome and large windows overlooking Michigan Avenue and Millennium Park. Daley’s husband, former Mayor Richard M. Daley, and his children stood together near the closed casket to greet the visitors. At one point, Mayor Daley alone received 15 hugs in a span of five minutes.

Flowers on the light bronze casket were white and light green phalaenopsis, a type of orchid. Other bouquets included tulips, hydrangeas and pale pink roses. The After School Matters choir sang hymns and other songs, sharing time with a five-piece jazz combo that gave the gathering an upbeat aura many thought Mrs. Daley would have wanted.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his wife, Amy Rule, paid their respects early. Dignitaries such as U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin , Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., Gov. Pat Quinn, presidential advisers Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod and current and former city departments heads, business leaders and aldermen mingled with the body politic.

For others who knew Mrs. Daley personally, her death Thursday stirred memories of kind deeds, encouragement and shared laughter.

Charlene Williams, a Hyde Park resident, recalled the delighted reaction of Maggie Daley and her husband when she gave them a photograph of her grandmother with the ex-mayor’s father, Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Cheryl Meerbery was a nurse at Children’s Memorial Hospital who treated the Daleys’ son, Kevin, before he died at age 2 from complications of spina bifida.

“She was a special lady. Even though it’s such a private family, she talked to me like I was her neighbor,” said Meerbery. “And they didn’t forget about us nurses. Later they invited a group us to a White Sox game.”

Former Ald. Ginger Rugai (19th) and her husband, Ado Rugai, recalled Maggie’s unfailing good cheer at the annual Christmas parties the mayor threw for the City Council.

The last two years in particular, “she was the life of the party,” Ado Rugai said. “She made us all sing Christmas carols. She had them all picked out.”

The Daley family had a private mass inside the hall before the public wake began. A funeral mass is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Monday at Old St. Patrick’s Church at 700 W. Adams.

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