John Stroger Jr., the three-term Cook County, Ill., Board president and a longtime political force in Chicago, died Friday morning at the age of 78 of complications from a stroke he suffered in early 2006. The well-known county politician had not made a public appearance since the debilitating stroke.

Many learned of Stroger’s death Friday morning from Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley at an annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast.

“During a 50-year career in government, he left a mark on Chicago and Cook County that will be equaled by very few others,” Daley said in a later statement. “The political system he entered in the 1950s was not as open as it is now, but with talent and integrity John Stroger rose to the top and leaves a major legacy of achievement that all people can use as a model.”

The first African-American elected president of the county board and father of the current board president, Stroger oversaw the $3 billion government for 12 years after winning first winning the post in 1994.

He was in the midst of running for a fourth term in March 2006 when he suffered a stroke the week before the Democratic primary. He won the primary, but family and friends kept mum about his physical condition for months, until delivering a letter of resignation to the county board in June 2006.

Democratic leaders quickly drafted Stroger’s son, Todd Stroger, to replace his father on the ballot in the general election. A former Chicago alderman, Todd Stroger won the election in November and began presiding over the board in January 2007.

John Stroger was first elected to the county board as an Eighth Ward commissioner in 1970, and by 2006 was the longest-serving commissioner on the board. By March 2006 he was also the longest-serving member of the powerful Cook County Democratic Central Committee.

Born in Arkansas in 1929, Stroger moved to Chicago in 1954, in part to escape threats of violence for his actions fighting Jim Crow laws, according to reports.

Once in Chicago Stroger joined state Rep. Ralph Metcalfe’s political organization as an assistant precinct captain and was soon ensconced in the Chicago Democratic establishment. He earned a law degree from DePaul University in 1965. In 1968 then-Mayor Richard J. Daley made Stroger the Eighth Ward’s first black Democratic chairman, and two years later supported his run for the county board.

Under his leadership, Cook County won a series of upgrades from rating analysts. The county is currently rated AA by Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor’s, and Aa2 by Moody’s Investors Service.

“His background had been strongly in the finance area,” said Joseph O’Keefe, an analyst with Fitch, which upgraded the county twice under Stroger’s tenure. “During his tenure, the county improved their its financial reporting and improved their its financial position.”

Stroger’s long-stated goal of building a top-notch public hospital for poor and low-income residents was accomplished in 2002 with the completion of the $623 million, bond-financed hospital. At the time, the John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital was the most expensive public works project in Chicago.

“The greatest thing that can make me happy is that this hospital continue to serve the people who definitely need it,” Stroger said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“Bringing a new hospital to the county was one of his greatest legacies,” said Standard & Poor’s analyst John Kenward. “He had a personal commitment to the poor and low-income people of Cook County.”

In a statement issued Friday, Todd Stroger said: “He dedicated his life to his family and gave generously of himself as an elected official. His love for this county knew no bounds, and he will be deeply missed.”

John Stroger is survived by his wife, Yonnie Stroger, son Todd, and daughter Yonnie Clark.

County officials said services will be held at St. Felicitas Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side, but had not yet scheduled a date or time as of late Friday.

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