Now is the Time To Honor a Great Chicagoan – Benjamin S. Adamowski
IPSN August 28, 1997
By Richard Lindberg
You see them everywhere in Chicago. From Rogers Park to Beverly; from Michigan Avenue to Austin Avenue and every locale and side street across this great metropolis, city work crews are busily tacking up brown commemorative signs to lamp poles re-naming another parcel of land in honor of a local celebrity or friend of the politician whose clout in the neighborhood is “good.”
It is one thing to honor a man with the stature of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, but quite another to immortalize a used car dealer, or a sports figure like Harry Caray who was born in St. Louis and spent the better part of his career in St. Louis plugging the sponsor’s beer between innings of Cardinal baseball games.
Lost in the celebrity name game shuffle are the names of some distinguished Chicagoans who are very deserving of a special tribute, but are forgotten by history because their sterling achievements on behalf of the city occurred so many years ago.
One name that comes to mind in the roll-call of neglected civic leaders worthy of special consideration, is Benjamin S. Adamowski, a native Chicagoan and alderman’s son who was elected Cook County State’s Attorney in November 1956.
Ben Adamowski was the son of Max Adamowski, a realtor in the Logan Square neighborhood and a leader in the Polish-American community for many years before his son eclipsed his accomplishments. Ben began his political odyssey as a Democrat, elected to the first of five consecutive terms in the Illinois General Assembly in 1930. At the time, the 25th senatorial district was the largest in the State.
Adamowski came up through the ranks with the late Mayor Richard J. Daley and Federal Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz. Three close friends from the rough and tumble ethnic melting pot neighborhoods of Chicago: a Pole, an Irishman, and a Jew who became three of the most important and respected men in the State.
By the 1950s, their reputations and prestige extended from one end of the Land of Lincoln to the other. Over the years, both Marovitz and Adamowski closely studied the public and private life of Abraham Lincoln, and spoke authoritatively about the 16th President from Illinois.
Part of Ben’s collection of “Lincolnania” was donated to Chicago Public Library at the suggestion of Ralph Newman, proprietor of the Abraham Lincoln Book Store and a scholar in his own right. “We had in all, perhaps 11 or more beautiful engravings or etchings of different views, profiles of Lincoln plus the one of the State Capitol all hanging in our offices at 11 S. LaSalle St., “ recalls Paul Newey, his friend and law partner who served as Chief Investigator in the State’s Attorney’s office from 1956-1960.
Ben Adamowski’s close association with Marovitz and Daley took root in Springfield, and continued through the war years when Adamowski was commissioned a second lieutenant in the army, after attending the Judge Advocate General’s Officer Candidate School at Ann Arbor, Michigan.
In 1955, he broke ranks with Daley and the Democratic Party over the cavalier treatment of the outgoing Mayor Martin J. Kennelly who had been unceremoniously dumped by the ticket. After bolting the party and severing the ties with Daley, Adamowski won the office of State’s Attorney in 1956, as a Republican and seemed poised for a mayoral or gubernatorial run in 1960 if that was to his licking. Ben Adamowski’s star was on the rise, despite his Republican affiliation in the living, breathing heart of the Democratic Machine which garnered the loyalty of his people – the Northwest Side Polish-American constituency.
Ben served the residents of Cook County with distinction for four years; Adamowski’s team closed down illegal syndicate gambling dens. They exposed corruption in the circuit courts, the legal profession, and in the police department, culminating in the 1960 Summerdale Police scandal.
As a result of his diligent investigative work, eight crooked police officers from the old Summerdale Police District who conspired to burgle dozens of North Side retail establishments, were brought to justice. For his troubles Adamowski suffered a bitter personal blow when he was denied re-election in November 1960.
The incumbent State’s Attorney, who was never tarred by the kinds of scandals that ruined other county politicians, lost a bruising campaign to Daniel P. Ward by 26,000 votes amid charges of ghost voting and rampant fraud coming out of the syndicate-controlled “River Wards” – a bastion of machine politics and organized crime. It was commonly assumed that Daley’s people had stolen the election away from Ben. The Republican national ticket went down to defeat that year as well, but Richard Nixon, who could legitimately claim that he too was a victim of Cook County vote fraud, did not demand a recount.
In 1963 Ben Adamow-ski ran for mayor of Chicago, but Daley and his organization was an invincible, immutable force of nature that was impossible to overcome. For all practical purposes, Adamowski’s political career went into a permanent eclipse after that disappointing setback.
Years later, in the twilight of their lives, Paul Newey helped bring Adamowski and his adversary Richard Daley together in a social setting, thus putting an end to a historic feud that had dragged on since the mid-1950s. ”Ben mended his differences with Dick Daley after I got the two of them together at an alumni dinner at John Marshall Law School,” Newey recalls with a twinkle in his eye. “Bill Daley was attending law school at the time, so I thought it would be a good idea to have these two great men exchange autographs – for their grandchildren.”
The brilliant stratagem worked. That night when Mayor Daley stepped to the podium to address the dinner guests, the only person in the room he singled out for a special word of praise was his one-time political rival Ben Adamowski. In the coming months, Daley frequently called on Adamowski for his counsel and advice on matters of importance to the city.
“They communicated by phone quite frequently during this time,” Newey said. “Eventually the mayor offered Ben an appellate judgeship, but Ben said no. He believed he was too old, and the appointment would be sharply criticized in the media.”
Newey continues to campaign for his old friend. “I had written Maggie Daley [the wife of Mayor Richard M. Daley] a note, asking for her support for a permanent memorial,” he explains. “She agreed that something should be done for ‘this wonderful man’ which is how she described Ben.”
Just what shape or form this tribute should take, is still up in the air. Paul Newey has a few thoughts on the matter.
Throughout his life, Ben Adamowski was a voracious reader, a student of history, and a patron and long time friend of the Chicago Public Library. “I knew that Preston Bradley’s spot on the Chicago Public Library Board was vacant, so I urged the mayor to appoint Ben, and he did. Ben served on the board with distinction, but he never drew a salary for his work, nor has he been recognized by the City of Chicago in an official capacity.”
The hour has arrived to address this oversight and give the great man his due. It would be entirely appropriate, given Ben Adamowski’s love of books, to name a room, or special collection at the Harold Washington Library in honor of the Polish-American statesman from Chicago’s Northwest Side. The collected works of famous Chicago authors, monographs, maps, and community history documents are housed in a closed stack reference area within the library.
Each day, students, researchers, and Chicagoans who love their city unconditionally, access this room availing themselves to the collection of books and monographs dating back to the 19th century. How appropriate it would be for Commis-sioner Mary Dempsey and the Library Boad to re-christen it “the Ben Adamowski Chicago Collection,” with an inscribed plaque prominently displayed outside the door. After all, his name already appears in dozens of books about Chicago history and governance that line the shelves inside the room.
Ben could never be accused of being a low key public servant, but he was an exceptionally modest man.
And if he were still around today, he would probably chuckle, shake his head and dismiss the notion.
Ben Adamowski’s modesty cannot stand in the way of this posthumous honor. If not a room in the Chicago Public Library then perhaps a street sign in his home ward.
Either way, the time has come for the City of Chicago to recognize the civic contributions and leadership of this man before he becomes the forgotten man of history. And that would be an even greater tragedy.
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