Margaret Jane Burke, a debutante from a well-to-do Irish family, was the only pre-med student at Barat College, a proper school for young Catholic women on Chicago’s North Shore.
Around the coffee machine, Janie Burke regaled classmates with caustic stories about the perils of dating the similarly irreverent Bill Byrne. He was a student at Notre Dame, known campuswide as the big, brassy, red-cheeked Clevelander who campaigned for class office by dutifully marching door-to-door. Naked.
In time she would be Chicago’s first, and thus far only, woman mayor. And nothing about her tumultuous journey from Janie Burke to Mayor Jane Byrne would be as remarkable as how she won that job. No, it wasn’t just the fierce blizzards and gridlocked snowplows of political lore; at a public appearance now obscured in the mists of Chicago history, her predecessor found a spectacular way to self-destruct in the face of her onslaught.
Yes, there’s a wonderful yarn leading up to the primary election of Feb. 27, 1979. And after furious voters had dismissed incumbent Mayor Michael Bilandic, the Democratic Party’s new candidate for mayor famously declared, “I beat the whole goddamn machine single-handed!”
Now she leaves us, at age 81, dying Friday after long bouts of ill health.
How Byrne beat the machine is one of Chicago’s epic political tales. She had worked on Sen. John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign and met much of his clan. The White House invited her to a 1963 Army-Air Force football game at Soldier Field, where the spunky young widow — Bill Byrne, a Marine flier, had crash-landed in fog near Glenview Naval Air Station in 1959 — impressed Mayor Richard J. Daley. He gave her a job with an antipoverty program, then elevated her to his cabinet as commissioner of sales, weights and measures. In return Byrne rabidly defended Daley; when his minor stroke provoked speculation about possible successors, she called an over-the-top news conference to denounce the “vultures” and “little men of greed” waiting to grab for his power.