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Paul Stepan, political fund-raiser, Daley insider and developer, dies at 70

Paul Stepan | Sun-Times files

Paul Stepan | Sun-Times files

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Updated: September 14, 2013 6:29AM

Paul Stepan’s fund-raising prowess helped shape political careers and Chicago history, and his real estate acumen helped shape the North Loop.

He raised money — lots of it — for Democratic candidates, including former Mayor Richard M. Daley. As a developer, he helped build hotspots such as Harry Caray’s restaurant, Illinois Center and the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

“When Rich Daley ran for mayor in 1989, Paul was a driving force, raising significant money very, very quickly to help Daley deliver his message,’’ said Democratic political strategist David Axelrod. “He was very devoted to Rich, and it was clear he loved being in the mix.”

Mr. Stepan, 70, died Sunday at his home in Beverly Shores, Ind. He had fought head and neck cancer for 11 years.

He grew up in Winnetka in a well-to-do, accomplished family. In 1932, his father, Alfred C. Stepan, started a chemical firm that supplied products to control dust on country roads. Stepan Co. still has offices just off the Edens Expy. in Northfield. Paul Stepan’s mother, Mary Louise Quinn Stepan, was a champion swimmer and close friend of Indira Gandhi.

The Stepan children were achievers. Paul Stepan’s sister, Marilee, was a member of the 1952 Olympic swim team. His brother, Al, is a Columbia University dean and frequently quoted expert on international affairs. Another brother, F. Quinn Stepan, is chairman of the family firm.

He met Richard M. Daley when they faced off on high school basketball courts. Daley played for De La Salle Institute, and Paul Stepan was co-captain of Gene Sullivan’s Loyola Academy Ramblers at the 1961 Catholic League lightweight basketball championship.

Even at freshman football tryouts, he stood out, said his Loyola chum of 57 years, Richard A. “Dick” Devine, the former Cook County State’s Attorney. “I was standing there waiting for practice to start, and I saw this guy over on the side, and he’s throwing footballs like 40 yards,” Devine recalled. “I thought he was varsity.”

Mr. Stepan never telegraphed his family’s wealth, Devine said. So in high school, when Devine first saw his house, “I thought I was on a movie set for ‘Gone with the Wind’ or something.”

“I hear someone say ‘Would you like something to drink?’ I turned around, and there was a butler there. A butler,” he said. “[I thought:] ‘What is this?’ ’’

Later in life, Mr. Stepan helped raise funds for Devine’s run for chief prosecutor.

At a Loyola sock hop, Paul Stepan met a girl named Ann Ruppe from Sacred Heart Academy. He was so good-looking, “You’d think you died and went to heaven,” she said. Each never went out with anyone else.

He had a charisma that stemmed from his ability to draw out other people, she said. He made them feel like the center of attention.

In high school, just to make her laugh, he piloted a family boat down from Winnetka, stopping in Rogers Park at Albion Beach, now known as Hartigan Beach. “He was wearing a wetsuit, goggles, a spear, and he walks across Sheridan Road and down Arthur Avenue, and knocked on the door of our two-flat,” she said.

They dated exclusively as she attended Barat College and he went to Notre Dame. About a month after their 1965 graduation, they wed. The honeymoon “was a fairytale,” she said.

Their 90-day around-the-world tour included stops in Hawaii, Japan, Southeast Asia, Thailand, India, Scandinavia and Paris, she said. While in India, they stayed with Indira Gandhi. Mr. Stepan’s mother became friends with the future prime minister when Gandhi’s nephew roomed with Paul Stepan’s brother, Al, at Oxford University.

Mr. Stepan went on to study politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford. They had their first child and named her Shannon, an Irish place name, because she was conceived in Ireland, Ann Stepan said. Next, he graduated from law school at the University of Chicago.

Back in Chicago, he practiced law, started his own development firm and became an expert political fund-raiser. His wife became the Democratic committeeman of the 43rd Ward and a state representative.

Mr. Stepan’s backing was crucial when Richard M. Daley ran for state’s attorney. He was elected in 1980. “He was unbelievably helpful to Rich in 1980; in 1983, when he ran for mayor, and in 1989,” when he won, said Daley’s brother, Bill, who is running for governor.

Mr. Stepan’s organizational skills helped make the man who would become Chicago’s longest-serving mayor, Bill Daley said. He created campaign committees tied to unions, law firms, manufacturing and real estate.

And his ties to progressive politics made Richard M. Daley more palatable to Democrats who were fed up with his father, Mayor Richard J. Daley.

“Paul, by the strength of his personality, he was very plugged into the business community, and the activist” branch of the Democratic party, Bill Daley said, “areas that might have been closed or leery to Rich” in the late 1970s.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Stepan found himself at the center of an incendiary feud between Daley and then-City Treasurer Miriam Santos. Santos went public with a charge that she was being manipulated by Daley aides Edward J. Bedore, Tim Degnan and Frank Kruesi, and she said Mr. Stepan had asked her to approve a $5 million loan from a city pension fund for a South Loop hotel venture in which he had an interest. Daley got even by muscling through a state law removing her from her seats on the pension boards. She was rescued by then-Gov. Edgar, who vetoed the bill.

Mr. Stepan said he never formally pursued the loan request, and that it was “a quality deal involving Hyatt Hotels that passes all investment criteria.”

He devoured books on history. He had a special interest in the administration of President Zachary Taylor and wondered if his premature death in office contributed to the nation’s descent into the Civil War. He also enjoyed World War II history, Russian literature and the philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

“He adored Bob Dylan, and I think we own every CD that Bob Dylan ever made,” his wife said. He also loved the Bruce Springsteen recording, “The Rising.”

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his children, Shannon and Paul; his sisters, Marilee Wehman and Charlotte Shea; his brothers, Alfred, Quinn, Stratford and John, and four grandchildren. Visitation is at 9 a.m. Wednesday at Old St. Pat’s Church, 700 W. Adams. A funeral mass will follow at 10 a.m.

Contributing: Natasha Korecki

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