Eighty years ago, Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak was assassinated, an anniversary that some, like Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, say does not receive enough attention.
But on Thursday, a school in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, will remember Cermak by taking on the deceased mayor's name on the 140th anniversary of his birthday. Cermak's grandson, Anton Kerner, is scheduled to attend — his first trip to the country — along with U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic Norman Eisen.
Cermak was born in what is now the Czech Republic, but he immigrated with his family to the U.S. when he was a child and received little formal education. He once sold firewood out of a wagon, but then worked his way up the political ranks, beginning in 1902 when he was elected to the legislature. In 1931, he was elected Chicago's 35th mayor, defeating scandal-plagued Republican William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson.
"It's hard now to imagine, since there hasn't been a Republican mayor since 1931, but at one time Republicans actually got elected in Chicago," said Burke, a Chicago historian and dean of the Chicago City Council. "He created the framework of the modern Democratic Party in Cook County and Chicago, which prevailed as a model up until well into the '60s."
Or perhaps even longer than that. In a video posted on Facebook to mark the renaming of the Czech school, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he uses "the same desk that Mayor Cermak used at City Hall 80 years ago. And each day I reflect on the legacy that Mayor Cermak left on the city of Chicago."
Cermak built the strength of the Democratic Party by bringing together diverse factions, using clout and patronage to punish and reward. Eighty years later, his offspring still carry his legacy with them.
"I felt a little like Chicago royalty because I was a Cermak," said Kajon Cermak, a journalist who works in Los Angeles but grew up in Chicago. "I always had something to say at a party, that's for sure."
Cermak was assassinated in 1933 by Giuseppe Zangara, an Italian immigrant with a hatred for politicians and their governments.
"It's a great honor for my grandfather to have a school named after him," Anton Kerner, 65, said from O'Hare International Airport, as he was getting ready to board his flight to Europe. "He was quite devoted to schools himself." On the day Cermak was shot, he was asking President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt "for money to support for Chicago Public Schools that were struggling during the Depression," Kerner said.
The Prague school won't be the only landmark named for Cermak. Shortly after his assassination, the City Council voted to change the name of 22nd Street to Cermak Road.
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