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John Stroger’s staffers loyal to the end — and after

Updated: June 8, 2013 6:38AM

In an embarrassing postscript to a proud political career, memorabilia that had belonged to the late Cook County Board President John Stroger Jr. was put up for auction last summer after somebody failed to pay the bill on a storage locker in which it was being kept.

No matter your opinion of Stroger, it was a sad way to end the story of the first African American elected to the Cook County presidency.

Some of his former top aides thought so, too, and have set about the task of writing a different final chapter.

Granted a reprieve when the auction failed to produce the minimum bid requirement, the old Stroger allies slipped in afterward and bought the materials from the storage scavenger who had originally claimed them.

The Stroger stuff — mostly photos, plaques and such acquired over a lifetime in politics — has since been donated to the DuSable Museum of African American History. The museum is expected to produce a display honoring the longtime Democratic politician.

Why did they do this?

“Because it broke my heart that nobody else did,” explained Pat Shymanski, a former Stroger chief of staff who has led the effort along with Caryn Stancik, Bill Huffman, Ruth Rothstein, John Chambers and Al Joiner.

Shymanski said she and Stancik had tears in their eyes when they first inspected the materials, most of which Stroger had displayed in his fifth-floor office in the county building.

“Everything that was in the office had a story that was important to him,” said Stancik, who handled public relations for Stroger. “He told those stories over and over again.”

Among the items were a photograph of Stroger with the late Princess Diana during a visit to County Hospital (which now bears his name) and several involving former President Bill Clinton, a Stroger favorite because of their shared Arkansas connection.

“We were able to buy it as a collection. There’s nothing missing,” Stancik said. “You could literally rebuild that office.”

I’m doubtful Stroger’s place in history merits anyone rebuilding his office, but officials at the DuSable Museum say they will inventory and process the memorabilia and eventually produce an exhibit.

Stancik declined to disclose how much the group paid to buy the Stroger collection. At the auction, a high bid of $3,750 was rejected by the scavengers who had paid $450 to claim it from the storage company.

The women ended up loading most of the stuff into Shymanski’s F-150 pickup truck and delivering it to the museum personally.

A larger group of Stroger friends is holding an event Wednesday night at Tufano’s Vernon Park Tap to raise money for the museum for the purpose of preserving the Stroger collection.

“We felt this was an opportunity to preserve his legacy,” Stancik said.

While that legacy is a mixed bag, I would remind you that much of the animosity toward the Stroger family name was generated by his controversial replacement as board president, son Todd Stroger, after the father’s stroke.

Todd Stroger conceded Monday that it was his fault that his father’s memorabilia ended up being auctioned off because of a delinquency on the storage unit.

“That was just my mistake,” he said. Stroger said he never considered trying to buy it back himself.

“I didn’t really think about it, and I didn’t have the money,” he said.

Stroger said he will be in Phoenix on Wednesday and unable to attend the fund-raising event for the museum’s work on behalf of his father.

Still, he says he’s happy that somebody else thought enough of his father to lead this effort.

“I’ve always thought my father never really got his due for all his hard work,” Stroger said.

John Stroger, who died in 2008, was an old-fashioned, big government-style Democrat with a penchant for patronage. He was also a warm and friendly man who truly cared about helping people.

“If you were a friend of John Stroger, you were a friend for life,” said Shymanski.

And apparently even for a long time afterward.

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