Oak Park’s Phil Rock has been a close-up witness to historic events on several occasions, the most famous of which occurred 40 years ago this week. The fourth week of August 1968, the deep, festering divisions in America’s social and political fabric erupted violently at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago for all the world to see.

It’s an experience Rock, as he rose to power within the Illinois senate, would spend the next quarter century working diligently to assure was not repeated.

Last week on his way to a Cubs game, Rock stopped by to reminisce about his career and some the events he witnessed.

Entering politics

After graduating from Loyola Law School, Rock went to work for Attorney General William Clark in 1965, becoming chief of the state’s consumer fraud division in 1967.

Two years prior to first running for office Rock attended the Democratic Convention in Chicago, where Clark, who was also running for the U.S. Senate, was a convention delegate.

Rock got a front row seat as history unfolded, though it wasn’t an experience he relished.

“I really didn’t know how to feel,” Rock recalled. “I was dumbstruck, awestruck.” He spent four days moving between the Democrats’ headquarters at the Conrad Hilton Hotel and the International Amphitheater, watching society’s seams splitting.

Rock wasn’t sympathetic to the youthful demonstrators and what he termed the incite-ful tactics of the demonstration leaders. His brother, a Chicago cop, was involved in the battles with the Yippies and other youth groups.

“He said it was vicious down there, with them trying to incite the police,” Rock recalled.

The violent street chaos mirrored the deep divisions within the Democratic Party over the Vietnam War and various social issues, divisions Rock said badly hobbled party activists for some time afterward.

“In the aftermath of the convention we had to keep going and do the best we could under the circumstances,” he recalled. The Democrats lost the presidential election, and Clark lost to Republican icon Everett Dirksen.

He said Democrats received a painful lesson in politics 40 years ago.

“I think it was a lesson for all of us who were in organized politics,” he said. “It’s incumbent on all of us-if you’re interested, get involved.”

Rock threw himself into state and local politics. There were concerns among some in Oak Park that a West Side Chicago guy (Rock lived in Austin before moving here) was too close to the Daley Machine. Fran Sullivan, a 1972 Democratic convention delegate and later a Triton College trustee, believes those concerns proved unfounded.

“I’ve always thought of him as a good legislator and a good spokesman for Oak Park,” she said.

Rock was elected to the state senate in 1970, where he rose steadily in both the party and the statehouse. In 1971, he was elected Democratic state committeeman for the sixth district. In 1973 he was chosen as assistant senate minority leader. Two years later, after the Democrats took over both houses and the governor’s mansion, Rock became assistant majority leader.

Along the way, Sullivan said, Rock balanced the need to work with establishment Democrats and the concerns of his more progressive Oak Park base.

“He was pragmatic enough to know when to go along to get along, and when to break with [machine interests] when necessary,” said Sullivan.

In 1979, Rock was elected senate president by his peers. One of his first acts was to sue new Governor James Thompson over a parliamentary power grab intended to tilt senate power to the Republicans. Rock won the six-week court suit, an accomplishment that led to his re-election as senate president an unprecedented six times. The closest Rock ever came to defeat in a state senate race was a 488-vote victory over Elmwood Park mayor Elmer Conti in 1972.

Rock suffered his only political defeat in 1984-to Paul Simon-in a four-way Democratic U.S. Senate primacy race. It was the only time, Sullivan said, she didn’t support Rock politically.

“I wrote him a letter explaining that my loyalty to Paul Simon superceded my loyalty to Phil Rock. I think he understood.” Simon won with 36 percent; Rock was fourth with 19 percent.

In 1989 on Thanksgiving eve, Rock avoided a potentially far greater defeat when he underwent 3½ hours of double -bypass heart surgery at Loyola Medical Center after a routine checkup found arterial blockage. A week later Rock, still in the hospital, turned down a draft offer to run as a compromise candidate for Cook County board president.

Rock would fully recover and serve three more years as senate president, but in 1993, with the GOP taking control of the statehouse, Rock retired.

In the 15 years since he left the Illinois Senate, he’s eased away from direct involvement in politics. Over that time he’s gained some perspective on what he experienced and accomplished.

It’s also enabled him to let go of the past and enjoy a more relaxing present. While he had a front-row seat for one historic convention, Rock said he’ll be absent from the Denver convention “by choice.” He’s looking forward to watching this week’s momentous convention on television from the comfort of his living room.

“Just like most everyone else,” he said.

Changing of the guard

One person Rock may well see on television is his protégé, Oak Park’s current state Senator Don Harmon. Rock’s not making any recommendations to state senators looking for a replacement for retiring president Emil Jones, but he didn’t hesitate to endorse Harmon.

“I think he’d make a wonderful senate president,” said Rock, who first met Harmon when he volunteered with the Oak Park Democratic Party 30 years ago. “I was impressed then, and I’m impressed now.”

Harmon, he said, “has the knowledge, is a quick study and treats everyone fairly,” and he also possesses a basic prerequisite for success in the state legislature.

“I tell every candidate, in order to be a success, you have to give a damn, you have to care,” said Rock. “I think Don Harmon cares, cares about a whole host of subjects.”

Harmon wouldn’t prognosticate on the process to find a new senate president, but he sounded pleased with Rock’s comments.

“A good word from Phil Rock is high praise,” said Harmon, who was 2 years old in 1968. “No one knows better than he does what it takes to be a good senate president. I’ve known Phil Rock for 30 years. I learn something new from him every time he shares his wisdom.”

Like Rock before him, Harmon is moving up in the senate hierarchy on the basis of his work ethic, smarts and people skills, and his willingness to work across the aisle on legislation.

Sullivan calls Harmon’s leadership style “intelligent and well informed.”

“He’s very much in the mold of Phil Rock,” she said. “[Don] was my very first thought when I heard Emil Jones was retiring.”

Harmon himself had no comment on his odds of being the next senate president, but he acknowledged the uniqueness and possibilities of the current state of affairs.

“This sort of re-arranging of the furniture in politics is unusual,” he said, referring to the possibility of open Illinois and U.S. senate seats. “For two [situations] like this to occur is [really rare]. There’ll be an awful lot of jockeying for position.”

Harmon said that while the final decision will be made when the senate organizes in January, things will be more evident in November. “There’ll be some clarity in November when they hold the caucus.”

CONTACT: bdwyer@wjinc.com

Participating in history

Though he volunteered to assist at the 1996 Chicago Democratic Convention, this will be Don Harmon’s first national convention as a delegate. “I really don’t know what to expect. I’m hoping there’ll be something substantive to do.”

He sounded like a man happy to play a part in the nomination of former state senate colleague Barack Obama, the first African-American presidential candidate of a major political party.

“There are so few people in any lifetime who get to that point,” said Harmon. “I think back to the [state senate] judiciary committee, when he and I would ask each other questions. I really have to pinch myself.”

Obama’s success doesn’t shock Harmon, though.

“From the first day I met him, I thought Barack Obama was destined for great things,” he said.

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