SPRINGFIELD – Former House Speaker W. Robert Blair II, who helped modernize the Illinois Legislature and swiftly established a legacy as a visionary unafraid to ruffle feathers, has died, his wife said Tuesday. He was 83.
Blair was elected to the Illinois House in 1964 and served as speaker from 1971 to 1975. His tenure was known in part for efforts to expand staff, make in-depth research more easily accessible to members and for his push to establish the Regional Transportation Authority.
Blair died Saturday following a long illness, his wife Rozanne Blair told The Associated Press.
Former Gov. Jim Edgar, who worked for Blair from 1972-73, said Blair commanded respect for his political courage at a time when the role of speaker was often a revolving door.
"Next to [former Gov.] Jim Thompson, he was the brightest guy I dealt with in Springfield," Edgar told the AP. "He had a good understanding of the big picture."
Kent Redfield, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Springfield, said Blair had the foresight to understand that the growing Chicago region needed a stable transportation system coordinated under one umbrella.
That plan was particularly unpopular among constituents in the suburban district he represented, many of whom felt they were footing the bill for Chicago's transportation problems. Blair was voted out of office in 1974, the year the Watergate scandal propelled Democrats across the country into office.
As speaker, Blair also pushed through spending of nearly $1 million on Capitol renovations.
Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, recalled a visit by Blair to see recent statehouse refurbishments.
"He made a lot of positive comments and recalled the time he spent years ago," Brown said.
Blair is also remembered for surviving a fierce challenge to the speakership by then-Rep. Henry Hyde in 1973. Hyde later went on to serve in Congress for 30 years, steering the impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton.
"It was as brutal of a speaker battle as you'd ever had," Edgar said.
Mike Lawrence, a longtime statehouse reporter and former director of Southern Illinois University's Paul Simon Institute, described Blair as both "cunning" and "colorful."
"Those qualities may not have put him at the top of the good-government list, but they helped make him very effective in the legislative arena," Lawrence said.
Yet, the House's method of using cumulative voting to elect members, along with the unpopularity of his RTA push, made Blair's speaker as tenure brief.
Born in Clarksburg, W. Va., Blair moved to Illinois in 1955, after graduating from West Virginia University. In addition to his time in the Legislature, he served in the Air Force, ran a real estate company, and served as chairman of the Illinois Transportation Study Commission.
Blair spent several years living in the Dominican Republic while going through a divorce with his first wife, Patricia Gochenour, in the early 1990s, Rozanne Blair said.
In his later years, Blair and his wife split time between residences in Chicago, Somonauk and Sarasota, Fla. He was the father of nine children and several grandchildren.
Blair's funeral Mass will be Thursday in LaGrange Park.
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