Edward Derwinski, 1st veterans affairs secretary, dies

Posted Jan. 19, 2012, at 8:20 p.m.

CHICAGO — Edward Derwinski, who represented Chicago’s south side and adjoining suburbs in Congress for nearly a quarter-century before becoming the nation’s first secretary of veterans affairs, has died. He was 85.

Derwinski died Sunday of cancer, his family said. He will be buried this weekend at Arlington National Cemetery.

Derwinski’s congressional career began in 1959 after he had served a single term in the Illinois House, and those who knew him say he knew his district inside and out and was liked by his fellow Republicans and Democrats alike.

“He was somebody that was well-grounded in his principles and his patriotism but brought a gritty, Chicagoland get-it-done feel to his work,” Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican, told the Chicago Tribune.

Derwinski held his U.S. House seat until losing a primary race in 1982 after the boundaries of his district were redrawn.

He then spent six years at the State Department, rising to the post of undersecretary for national security affairs, before President George H. W. Bush picked him in 1989 to head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which had just been elevated to Cabinet status. His three-year tenure proved rocky.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, for instance, passed a resolution calling for his resignation. The group’s commander accused Derwinski of displaying “contempt” for veterans. He was also booed by members of the American Legion at an event.

The issues that triggered their anger included proposals to admit poor non-veterans to two underused VA hospitals and to eliminate smoking at the hospitals.

Derwinski was among the troops that occupied Japan at the end of World War II, and after returning to civilian life he took over the family’s saving and loan, helping it grow dramatically. He served on the board of an Oak Park bank until his death.

His daughter, Maureen Quattrocki, said that when her father was in office, he especially enjoyed returning to Chicago to speak at schools or attend public ceremonies that allowed him to mingle with members of his district.

“I really believe he was happiest talking to people and making speeches,” she said. “He had the right joke for the right event. Everyone was laughing. He loved that.”

Derwinski is also survived by his wife, Bonnie; a son, Michael; a stepdaughter, Maggie Hickey; a stepson, Kevin Hickey; a sister, Bernadette Ferrara; and seven grandchildren.

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