The way forward is helping others
The way through is helping yourself
by Jill Wallace
His actions were bold and screamed entitlement. I was speechless, a bit uneasy and somewhat afraid as we drove up 67th street looking for parking. There wasn’t an empty space in sight. I just knew we had to trample through the frigid cold and dirty snow like most of the people gathered to pay tribute, an annual event, to the late, Harold Washington at Oakwood Cemetery this past November.
Elected officials, clergy and others who hold some prominence in Chicago had created a middle parking lane with squad cards blaring a screen of protection, keeping oncoming traffic at bay. I chuckled thinking that Eddie L. McCann, Jr. believed he had earned the right to be in front and first in line, like current elected officials without anyone grumpling or complaining. He was once one of the prominent ones and makes it known that he still is. He’s in charge, still calling the shots and making plans while leaning like a Boss in the passenger seat of the car.
He gestured for me to stop in the middle of the street. “Right here, park right here,” he says. I’ll get a ticket and towed, I say. He counters, e”No, I’ll just let the officers know to spread the word that this is Ed McCann’s car.”
I take my chances and do as I’m told while quickly getting out so we don’t miss the tribute. As I walk around to the passenger side, Ed is still maneuvering his body trying to get out of the truck. I think about telling him to sit up so getting out is easier, and decide immediately against it.
Eddie L. McCann, Jr. was born and raised on Chicago’s south side. He is known as the go-to guy for many elected Chicago politicians, and has helped many get elected including Carol Moseley Braun, Jesse Jackson, Jr., Pat Quinn, and Dick Durbin. His role is always to get to the common folks, people at the bottom as well as the top with his quick witted, no nonsense approach with reaching out to underserved and underrepresented populations. He’s worked on political campaigns since he was 14, serving with his Godfather, Bishop Louis Henry Ford and former Alderman Ralph Metcalf.
“They taught me the importance of helping people, being honest – brutally honest, having integrity, and to have passion for whatever you do.”.
Ed toyed with his passion of becoming a police officer immediately after graduation from high school. He set his hopes on entering the Police Academy by the time he was nineteen. But the violence and race–triggered police brutality issues that plagued Chicago and other US cities didn’t sit well with his mom. “She just didn’t believe I would survive being a police officer to help people because it was dangerous. She thought I could succeed just as well working in city government and continuing my helping with political campaigns”. Ed appeased him mom and promised her that he would never become a police officer.
So, he began a career working in city and county government and politics that would prepare him for his biggest calling. Two major roles in government launched his career. First, as the Legislative Assistant to Harold Washington. “Mayor Washington , – was full of grit and sophistication. He taught me the importance of persistence. He’d often, out of nowhere, remind me that nobody is going to give you anything. Be prepared to take what you want, read to understand the underlying story, work toward being respected and not so much liked.”
As a supervisor for the Chief Medical Examiner, where he oversaw natural deaths, Ed learned the importance of having compassion. He’d often have the responsibility of speaking with families about the details of a loved one’s death. The delicate balance of being compassionate and having grit would prove more important in years to come.
At 29, with ten years under his belt working in government, he was bored and wanted more but he stayed and used the seniority and time he’d accumulated for personal days to spend time and care for his ill mother. She had developed Sarcadoisis – a lung disease with an unknown cause and no cure, which led to her being diagnosed with Emphysema. Almost a year to the day of her diagnosis, Ed’s mother died. “Just like that, snapping his fingers. She left me but didn’t have to worry about my safety because I held to my promise.”
Ed was in dark place. A sad place. He was emotionally bankrupt and grieved not only his mother’s passing, but for himself. His career was stale and he did not see the light to save his soul. “I was hurt so I knew it was time to get into me. I’d go into a dark room and ask myself, Ed, what are you depressed about, what’s wrong with you? I knew what was wrong.”
He needed motivation and decided that he needed to motivate himself instead of looking to others for the magic wand remembering the lessons from his mentor, Mayor Harold Washington. His mom was gone and she could no longer worry about her son’s safety.
Two tasks lingered after her death. Her funeral and to reactivate his application to become a Chicago Police Officer. “I buried my mom but my dream hadn’t died. I only did what my mom wanted me to do. She’s gone”, he said, head bowed, body reclined in an upright chair, remembering that moment thirty-four years ago.
At thirty, Ed McCann was clad in uniform as a Chicago Police Officer. Working a beat and moving up the ranks in 23 years, he only wanted to put bad guys – specifically rapists, murderers and robbers away, behind bars for a very long time. “It was personal for me. I wouldn’t go home or sleep until we caught them and brought them to justice. I put people in jail and didn’t care what color they were. I enforced the law, not someone’s color.”
Ed was successful with solving crimes by building relationships with good neighbors, a skill he learned years ago. “Neighbors would call and tell me who the criminals were and when something bad was about to happen. I depended on good neighbors and in return I made sure they had the services they needed from government. “
In 1995 and again in 1999, while still a Chicago Police Officer, Ed McCann ran for alderman of the 18th Ward, but both times the incumbent defeated him. He still believed in politics and knew there was a shot at serving a bigger cause – for someone to fight for the voiceless. He failed to win, but it didn’t stop his drive. “I lost but I’m not a failure. I have no reason to throw in the towel and feel defeated because failure isn’t in my blood. I didn’t grow up poor or raggedy. Our needs were met. And I’ll keep fighting to meet the needs of the people.”
After 23 years of notable success as a Cook County Police Officer, John Stroger, then President of the Cook County Board asked Ed to put his name in the hat and apply for the Chief of Police of the Forest Preserve position. “Stroger noticed that I had skills and courage. He told me he believed I could do the job.” Ed wanted to be a big boss and this was his chance. He got the position amid controversy. To many, that he had only served less than two years as a patrolmen didn’t qualify him to become Chief of Police of the Cook County Forest Preserve – the boss of 80,000 acres of Cook County forest land, the 2nd largest forest preserve in the nation, (Los Angeles is the largest) and the largest police department in Cook County. According to others, he earned the position, the title and long term friendship with John Stroger. Ed set out with two goals: To get results and to restructure the department.
A few years into the job, he began to accept that some people weren’t crazy about him. “I’m hot or cold. There’s no room for the middle.”
McCann said he had chastised an officer for wearing dress shoes while working in the forest. The officer began complaining about Ed to co-worker, an ally on the Chicago police force. He continued to wear the inappropriate shoes until Ed disciplined him for insubordination. The officer called in the union and was told “that he was under the supervision of the Chief of Police and was to follow all commands and rules given.” The officer quit and, McCann said that the officer started a smear campaign against him that didn’t last. “People can’t handle the truth and I get results. That’s all that matters”, said McCann.
During his tenure at the Chicago Police Department and Forest Preserve, McCann helped churches on Chicago’s south side coordinate their political affairs. He has also served as the political consultant to elected officials and politicians, including Carol Moseley Braun, Bill Clinton, Dick Durbin, Pat Quinn, Jesse Jackson, Jr. , Jesse Jackson, Sr., and now, Steven G. Watkins, candidate for Judge of Cook County Circuit Court. Ed’s rate is somewhere in the five-thousand dollar price per month. Steven G. Watkins enlisted Ed’s support for his campaign. “I was told to hire Ed, because he gets results, he knows people and they know him.”
With very little time to sail on Lake Michigan because of the back-to-back campaign wars, Ed continued serving people – through his political work and as Chief of Police – though he had achieved his goals as Chief and had become bored again. His life took a difference course on a sunny January 7, 2008 winter morning. He was having chest pains and decided to exercise by doing jumping jacks in his basement. What he thought was indigestion was really a heart attack. After complaining he was unable to move, McCann was rushed to Christ Hospital’s Emergency Room. Hospital officials greeted the medics and explained that they couldn’t take anymore patients because all of the beds were taken. Ed heard the medics fighting to save his life, “You gotta take him or he won’t make it alive to another hospital. His name is Ed McCann”. Immediately the hospital staff and nurses helped wheel him into the operating room for emergency surgery. “I was out of it, but I could hear nurses and people saying how I helped so many people.” After surgery, the hospital put a limit of 3 at a time for a few minutes of visitation to Ed McCann. He was hospitalized for a week and received hundreds of cards and countless visitors.
“At that moment, God spared my life. I knew my impact.”
Ed calls the heart attack a crazy twist of fate. “I was at the height of my career as a political consultant, Chief of Police, Boss – all to help people, but I was tired.” He was on medical leave from his duties with orders to rest and heal. Then on January 18, 2008, his friend of 18 years, John Stroger died from complications of a stroke. Ed returned to the hospital from the shock of the news. His heart was in double trouble. Again after being released, he was under 24 hr. care while healing and grieving the loss of his friend. His Cardiologist refused to allow him to attend the funeral. In a good ‘ole persistent fashion, claiming that not attending the funeral would be just as bad for his heart, Ed pressed his doctor and was given permission to attend Stroger’s funeral with specific limitations: (1) he was not to be hugged or touched by anyone and (2) immediately following the funeral he would skip the any other tributes and return home giving his doctor a call from the house phone not his cell phone. “Stoger and I worked so hard for each other. I was instrumental in getting Cook County hospital renamed for him, me and Jesse Jackson, Sr. I had to go, there was no way around it.”
A squad car chauffeured Ed to pay his respect to his friend, with two officers, positioned on both sides, escorting him into the funeral service. “I’d half-smile and whisper to the officers on each side of me – to tell the woman or man that I wasn’t being nasty, but I couldn’t hug them or allow them to get close because I had just gotten out of the hospital.”
After a few months on medical leave and time to think, Ed met with then Cook County Board President, John Steele to share his desire to retire. “I was tired and bored again. I had restructured the department, developed friendships and knew everyone and their character. I wanted to enjoy my life without the pressure and stress.”
He stayed three more years and finally retired March of 2011.
At his 2010 birthday party, 500 guests including elected officials, family, friends and Who’s Who of Chicago celebrated the life and legacy of Eddie L. McCann, Jr. Resolutions and accolades were nonstop for the man who had helped people every day of his life since he was fourteen. Outside, there was no parking available. Valet was fifteen dollars. A young lad, college student studying Political Science, drives up wondering where he could park. “I’m going to the birthday party for Ed McCann”, he tells the valet attendant. “Leave your car here. We know him.” The young man handed money to the attendant who refused it. “Don’t worry. Just help somebody and pay if forward man.”