Paul Egan, Unvarnished

Feb 27, 2022 | Articles & Exhibits, Featured

“A bunch of lousy gangsters.”

Mayor Paul Egan

That was Paul Egan’s view of politicians.  How he became a politician himself and earned an international reputation for plain speaking and a whole lot of other things is an Everyman story of the 1950s that begins in the unemployment line, twists through city hall, and ends up on Aurora streets with sample vacuums that he demonstrated to Mr. and Mrs. Homeowner.

Chicago magazine once called Egan “an uninformed, self-seeking, bigoted, profane, impetuous, boisterous, bungling, unpredictable buffoon.”   The Chicago Tribune reported that he was “the worst mayor in America”.  Aurora citizens expressed embarrassment that the city had become a national laughingstock and churchgoers were at a loss on how to deal with his continual profanity.  Had there been late-night comedy shows on television in those days,  impressionists would have been kept busy mimicking his style while holding his utterances and actions up to ridicule.  With plenty of bleep-outs, it would seem.

But Egan was a man of the people, and if he wasn’t like any mayor before or after, that was okay with him.  

In 1953 he was supporting his family of wife and 5 children on $28.50 a week in unemployment compensation, having previously been a reader of electric meters and self-publishing a weekly newspaper, the Aurora Economist, which he paid local boys to deliver house-to-house.  He had firm views on politics and the economy, most of which centered on the dishonesty and hypocrisy of what he called “big interests”, with special disdain for bankers.   It was this passionate interest in democracy as he saw it that led him to seek public office, and possibly also the $8000 a year salary of the mayoral office, although accounts agree that he was universally regarded as a scrupulously honest man who once refused an offer from the painters’ union to repaint his house, although it had gone years without seeing a brush

His time was marked by chaos in city hall.  He was usually at odds with the four other members of the city council (this was prior to Aurora’s adoption of the aldermanic form of government), and was generally outvoted 4-1.  He ran through eight police chiefs in his first term alone, and was known to have fist fights with city officials.  He once wrote to Soviet statesman Anastas Mikoyan to complain that there was no freedom of speech in the United States, and later wrote to President Eisenhower requesting paratroopers to put down a rebellion against him.   He reportedly also placed a $72 phone call to Nikita Kruschev asking him to “send over 24 Russian communists with guns” for the same purpose.

He was an equal-opportunity social critic, claiming that the two main causes of world tension were religion and the National Association of Manufacturers, and labeling both the Republican and Democratic parties “as bad as” the Communists.   

As mayor, in 1960 he sued the City of Aurora for $5 million after he was arrested at a city council meeting for breach of the peace.  Court records reveal the prequel to the meeting, expressed in a public statement from Egan the day before:

A dire emergency exists in Aurora which might spread very conceivably thru out the world, when it is demonstrated openly and conclusively that the power of the people in the choice of their executive can be surmounted and destroyed to the great disadvantage of most of the people including those who did not vote for the head of the government, and such blinking and ignoring the basic and vital things in Aurora, the State of Illinois and the Great formerly idealistic and marvelous Government of the United States of America which from its inception until about 45 years ago was the almost holy light of downtrodden men everywhere, the inspiration for living to those who had faith in us and our ideals, principals and basic pronouncements were the hope of the world, in comparison we are now preserving vicious dictatory, old corrupt and tottering governments and turning all of the wealth created by our ancestors and modern day potentialities in a mad race to keep factories working and a few all powerful against the interests, well being and now the very survival of every man woman and child on this entire earth.

I Therefore Proclaim A State Of Emergency In Aurora Illinois and ask every able bodied citizen of this country, who does not have a criminal, insane or other special unsavory record to come to the city hall council chambers at the city hall at 7 P.M., Tuesday night Oct. 14, 1958 to see if the people can be heard and get a remedy from their ills as some of our predecessors did to thro off the yoke of absolute monarcy and potential slavery in their day. I will welcome all races, all creeds and even legally registered Communists who are welcome if the are sincerely willing to help preserve our laws and bear arms for this purpose and to preserve our great heritage, priceless ideals, principals and purposes or rather and this is important, Come Back To Them, all races creeds and colors are invited to `bear arms,’ as the Constitution provides, the protection and preservation of the law in Aurora and let us once more be the City of `Lights’ which guides the way by attending this most important meeting in the history of Aurora. /s/ Paul Egan Mayor of Aurora, Illinois.

Egan’s relationship with the police department was a fraught one, and he seemed unable to settle on a chief he trusted, leading to claims that he had appointed, among a dozen in his two terms of office, a female wrestler and a 100-year-old parrot named Senor Carr. 

Mayor Egan presenting the key to the city to John F. Kennedy, then a candidate for president, October 25, 1960. 

His reputation as a maverick and a showboater spread nation-wide.  One Auroran recalls 1958, his freshman year at Yale, when his new roommate, shaking hands, said “Oh, Aurora!  You have that crazy mayor!”  Egan himself commented that many wished to label him crazy and that “they” had once almost persuaded his wife to commit him to an institution.                

Although it may have seemed there was little respect for the stubby man with the permanent 5-o-clock shadow (teen-age hooligans once shot a flaming arrow into the wooden siding of his house) his unorthodox approach to governance was not entirely unproductive.  Many average citizens seemed to identify with his claims to be a champion of the downtrodden, a fighter for the people, and an opponent of big interests.   He “talks like I do and makes mistakes like I probably would” signaled the forgiveness that many voters were willing to extend.   He was re-elected 12,362 to 8,621 in 1957.

Two community swimming pools were built during his administration, which rescued Aurorans from having to travel to Naperville for a swim,  and after embarrassing the city commissioners by running a citizens campaign to privately pay for mosquito spraying, he got that accomplished, too.

He also demonstrated skill as a modern urban planner, succeeding, in 1959, in getting the busy, transcontinental U.S. Highway 30 rerouted from the congested residential and downtown streets of Aurora to its current location in the communities of Boulder Hill, Montgomery and Oswego, with environmental and quality-of-life benefits to the city and economic benefits to the smaller towns to the south.

It was Paul Egan who indirectly inspired the creation of what is now an Aurora icon, Andy Aurora, the smiling cartoon “A” who proclaims “I’m from Aurora, Illinois and PROUD of it!” Egan’s successor, Mayor Jay Hunter, directed the late Jerry Morrow, then City Treasurer, to come up with a public relations slogan that would change the image of the town, and with the help of Beacon News illustrator, the late John Jarvis, Andy was launched in 1964.

Born in 1898 in Ottawa, Illinois, Paul Egan was elected mayor of Aurora in 1954 and re-elected to a second term in 1958.  He died of cancer at St. Charles Hospital in Aurora in 1968, age 69, and his body was donated to medical science.