|'A true statesman' dies at 76|
Respected Will County politician, attorney George E. Sangmeister known for integrity
October 14, 2007
"His word was gold." This is what lifelong friend and law partner Kenneth Grey said about George E. Sangmeister, a man who devoted 34 years to representing the interests of Will County, and who died Sunday, Oct. 7 at Silver Cross Hospital in Joliet. He was 76.
"His greatest attribute was his absolute humility," Grey said of Sangmeister, who began his career of public service in 1961 as a justice of the peace and magistrate of the Will County Circuit Court. "Officials from each side of the aisle – Democrats and Republicans – would come to him for advice and counsel. He was a true statesman."
A Frankfort native, Sangmeister was born Feb. 16, 1931, and attended the public schools of Joliet Township. His father, George C. Sangmeister, served as Frankfort mayor from 1923 to 1955. Before attending Elmhurst College, George E. Sangmeister served with the U.S. Army in the Korean War. He later received his law degree from John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
After serving as a Will County magistrate until 1968, Sangmeister, a democrat, was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, where he served from 1972 to 1976. A war veteran himself, Sangmeister was a member of the House Committee on Veteran's Affairs and helped bring a VA clinic to Joliet.
"He loved what he was doing," said Larry Walsh of Sangmeister's desire to bring a veterans clinic to Joliet.
Currently the Will County Executive, Walsh knew Sangmeister when he first ran for state representative in 1972.
"He was a very committed and focused individual," Walsh said. "His desire to bring a veterans clinic to Joliet was evident, and he secured the funding for it."
Following his term as a state representative, Sangmeister spent the next 11 years, until 1987, as a member of the Illinois Senate. It was during this time, in 1977, that Sangmeister was diagnosed with the cancer that would claim his life 30 years later. With the help of an experimental treatment and with his own determination, Sangmeister continued to work for the best interests of his constituents.
"He really respected the vote of confidence voters put in him," said Walsh, who called Sangmeister a longtime friend and mentor. "He brought a meaning to being an elected official that was really on the positive side."
Despite losing to extremist Democrat Lyndon LaRouche in the 1986 Democratic primary race for lieutenant governor, Sangmeister was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for three terms, representing Illinois' 11th District from 1989 to 1995. Because of the upset, Adlai E. Stevenson III was forced to withdraw his nomination as the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, ultimately placing Sangmeister within Illinois' notable political history.
Known for his honesty and integrity, Sangmeister was well-respected throughout the political realm, and his influence was evident even after his retirement from public service in 1995. Sangmeister was instrumental in the redevelopment of the Joliet Arsenal for industrial development, prairie preservation and the creation of the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery.
"His No. 1 priority was creating the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery," Walsh said. "That and the Midewin prairie."
As the nation's first designated tallgrass prairie, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie covers more than 15,000 acres.
Sangmeister was also known and respected for sticking to his convictions.
"He lived by the age-old principle, 'You represent the people that put you there,' " said Grey, who also worked with Sangmeister in Frankfort at the law firm McKeown, Fitzgerald, Zollner, Buck, Hutchinson and Ruttle.
Grey said there is one story that really exemplified Sangmeister's defining characteristics. "It's the story of George onboard Air Force One with President Clinton," Grey said.
He told of how Sangmeister was invited onto Air Force One and how President Bill Clinton tried to persuade him to vote in favor of the controversial North American Free Trade Agreement.
"And George said, 'Mr. President, that's just not what's good for my people,'" Grey related. Grey said that's just the kind of person Sangmeister was. "He'd say, 'It's either right for my district or it's not.'"
"He was so well-respected," Walsh said. "The way he carried himself brought out a sense of awe when he walked into a room."
Walsh also said Sangmeister was a major player in bringing DAYBREAK Shelter to Joliet.
"He knew the need was there," Walsh said. "He knew there was a segment of society looking not for a handout, but for a helping hand." The shelter, which is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, offers food, emergency housing and supportive services for those in need.
Worthwhile advice was also something Walsh said Sangmeister provided. Walsh said that before he began his term as an Illinois senator, Sangmeister shared with him something Walsh has also passed on. "He said, 'One commandment you should always keep in the forefront in Springfield is: Your word is your bond.'"
George E. Sangmeister was laid to rest Thursday, Oct. 11 at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood. He is survived by his wife, Doris; children, George Kurt Sangmeister and Kimberly Ann Puckett; and four grandchildren.