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Bob Michel remembered for civility, fairness

220px Robert H. Michel 95th Congress
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Robert Michel, who during his 38 years representing the Peoria region in Congress was known to always put country ahead of party, died Friday in Arlington, Virginia. He was 93.

Michel, born and raised in Peoria, was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1957 and served the 18th District until his retirement in 1995. He remained in the Washington, D.C. area, working as a lobbyist, for many years after. His death was caused by pneumonia, according to published reports.

Michel was popular in Peoria, easily winning re-election every two years with few exceptions. He was best known for his willingness to work both sides of the aisle in Congress if it meant reaching a compromise that was best for the country. He was a frequent guest at the White House, particularly in the Reagan years.

He always maintained civility as House Minority Leader, but retired when it became evident that a new “us vs. them” attitude was developing under former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. In fact, many pundits believe it was Gingrich moving in behind Michel in House GOP leadership that led to the partisan fights we see in Congress today.

Michel replaced former U.S. Rep. Harold H. Velde, who retired. Michel then was replaced as 18th District Representative by Ray LaHood, who before that was Michel’s chief of staff.

LaHood’s style was much like his mentor’s in that he was a nice guy who respected all others regardless of party. It’s one reason LaHood was asked to serve in President Barack Obama’s cabinet as Transportation Secretary.

In comments after learning of Michel’s death, LaHood praised him for the way he legislated while still able to treat others with respect and civility. He said Michel was a mentor to many and showed others how being respectful to all opinions was important.

Michel was a hero in World War II, fighting on Normandy as well as in the Battle of the Bulge. Despite being severely wounded he helped capture a German emplacement, earning his two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart.

After the war he returned to Peoria and graduated from Bradley University. He married Corinne Woodruff, a fellow Peorian and Bradley student, in 1948. They were married 55 years before her death in 2003. Together they had four children.

Michel went to work for Rep. Velde in 1949, then succeeded him in 1957 at the age of 33.

After his retirement, Michel was presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award, by then-President Bill Clinton in 1994. In giving the award Clinton remarked how he and Michel often disagreed but that he knew the Congressman always put country ahead of party.

He was presented the Order of Lincoln Award, the highest in Illinois, in 1997 by then-Gov. Jim Edgar.

In Peoria, there is a bridge, student center at Bradley University and the Veterans Administration building all named in his honor. While his visits back home became less frequent due to his age and health, Michel returned for those dedications.

Also, the Creve Coeur Club has named its highest award the Robert H. Michel Lifetime Achievement Award, which is presented each year at the annual Washington Day Banquet. Michel was the first recipient.

Bradley University awarded Michel an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree in 1981 (his bachelor’s degree in 1948 was in business administration) and he was on the university’s Board of Trustees, including as an Honorary Trustee at the time of his death. When he retired the university established the Bob and Corinne Michel Scholarship at Bradley and named him a Distinguished  Adjunct Professor of American Government.

Others who reacted to Michel’s death included:

Former U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock, who replaced Ray LaHood in the 18th District: “Bob was one of the most sincere and genuine people in the world. He always had a cheery disposition and positive outlook, which made him popular even among his political adversaries. Even in his later years, he never lost the personal touch. A handwritten note, a personal phone call of encouragement and support. I will miss him dearly.”

U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, currently 18th District representative: “It is with a heavy heart today that we mourn the passing of former Congressman Bob Michel. Bob Michel led a remarkable life.  Born and raised in Peoria, as a young man he stormed the beaches of Normandy as an infantryman in WW II, fought in the battle of the Bulge and received a Purple Heart Award.  He came home and graduated from Bradley University and got elected to Congress and went on to honorably serve for 38 years representing Peoria and much of Central Illinois.  14 of those years as the elected House Republican Leader where he was instrumental in helping President Ronald Reagan pass his legislative agenda through Congress.  Bob is remembered for his uncommon decency and his common sense Midwestern values.  He was a true statesman and an example for all of us in public service. My thoughts and prayers are with him and his entire family. May God bless him.”I

U.S. Rep.Cheri Bustos, 17th District representative: “Whether it was his courageous service in World War II, his work to strengthen Illinois or his bipartisan approach to leadership in Congress, Bob Michel was one of Peoria’s best. Bob Michel proved that if Democrats and Republicans are willing to reach across the aisle and work together, then we can achieve great things for the people we serve. I join with all Peorians in giving thanks for the example he set and offering my heartfelt condolences to his friends, family and loved ones.”

Jim Umpleby, CEO, Caterpillar Inc. "If you're driving in the Peoria area, there's a good chance you'll find yourself on the Bob Michel Bridge, a perfect metaphor for a man who dedicated his life to building bridges in Washington for his hometown. Bob Michel was a classy, generous and courageous man who stands shoulder to shoulder with the outstanding lineage of Central Illinois representatives. Caterpillar is particularly thankful for Bob's deep affection for our company and employees. His service to our nation, both in the U.S. Army where he received numerous decorations for valor, and his 38 years in the House of Representatives, where he always put Central Illinois first, deserve our eternal gratitude. Bob's love for his country was only exceeded by his love for his wife Corinne and his family. He will be deeply missed and remembered as a statesman of the highest order."  

Gary Roberts, president of Bradley University: “Congressman Michel and his wife Corinne were true models of dedicated public servants. The University and the community are indebted to the Michels for their loyalty to their alma mater and their distinguished leadership in our community and the nation.”

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).