W. Robert Blair II, a two-term Illinois House speaker in the 1970s who was admired and maligned for his push to create the Regional Transportation Authority, has died at 83 after a long illness.
Mr. Blair, who died Saturday, Jan. 18, was remembered by family and former colleagues as a Republican who brought the Illinois House into the modern era and pushed for the creation of the RTA at a cost to his own political career.
"He is ... remembered as someone who paid the ultimate political price to follow what he believed in strongly, which was the creation of the Regional Transportation Authority, which helped to stabilize the public transportation system in the Chicagoland region," said Steve Brown, a spokesman for current Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan. "He took us out of this brink-of-disaster mode transportation was in."
The plan was especially unpopular in the suburbs, Brown said, but before the implementation of the RTA, public transportation in the Chicago area was a hodgepodge of private companies, many of which were on the edge of bankruptcy.
"It was a great decision," Brown said. "And people taking unpopular political positions — he can be admired for that."
Mr. Blair was elected to the Illinois House in 1964 and served five terms before being voted out of office. He was speaker twice, from 1971 to 1975.
He was born Oct. 22, 1930, in Clarksburg, W.Va. He graduated from West Virginia University in 1954, moved to Illinois in 1955 and lived in the Will County section of Park Forest for several years. Mr. Blair also served two years in the Air Force and was assistant to the president of Swift & Co.
He married Patricia Gochenour, also of Clarksburg, in 1952, and the couple had three children. The couple went through an acrimonious divorce in the 1990s, during which time Mr. Blair moved to the Dominican Republic before agreeing to a settlement in 1995.
His daughter, Susan Blair, said he had a real estate company with his then-wife called Fairfax Realty. She said he also once owned a restaurant in Crete called Abe's Log Cabin & Blair House Restaurants and had a private law practice in downtown Chicago.
"We campaigned for my father in 1964," said his daughter, 53.
Mr. Blair's wife of 17 years, Rozanne Blair, said "he was absolutely honest and goal-oriented."
One of his legacies was to change the color in the chambers from red to blue, "because it had a calming effect," she said.
Madigan also credits Mr. Blair with helping to modernize the Illinois General Assembly, Brown said. Before Mr. Blair's time, the legislature generally had a small staff.
"So they were very much over the barrel when it came to trying to analyze proposals from the governor and deal with the ever-complex nature of public life," Brown said. "They brought the legislature into the modern era."
Former Republican Rep. William Black was not in the General Assembly while Mr. Blair was speaker but said he was well aware of his reputation.
"From everything anyone told me, he was an outstanding individual," Black said. "He was upright, forthright. You knew where you stood with him. He followed the rules.
"He was a statesman and a gentleman, and those are good qualities to have."
In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. Blair is survived by two sons, Steven and Mark; five stepchildren, Jeannine Fleurant, Sandy Bakalich, Jennifer Joyce, Kevin Joyce and Christopher Joyce; and several grandchildren.
A visitation will be held from 3 to 8 p.m. Wednesday in Hitzeman Funeral Home, 9445 W. 31st St., Brookfield. Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m. Thursday in St. Louise de Marillac Catholic Church, 1144 Harrison Ave., La Grange Park.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun