Rockford, Illinois News

Former Mayor John McNamara dies at 81

ROCKFORD — Former Rockford Mayor John McNamara died Wednesday at the age of 81, the City of Rockford announced.

Born Aug. 27, 1939, in Whiting, Indiana, McNamara served as mayor from 1981 to 1989.

He graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree and then earned his Juris Doctor. from the University of Michigan Law School in 1964. After law school, McNamara served in the Army, including a tour in Vietnam, before being discharged as a captain in 1966. He then moved to Rockford to serve as Winnebago County second assistant public defender while also beginning a private law practice.

In 1974, McNamara was appointed to the Rockford City Council by then-Mayor Robert McGaw to fill a vacancy in the city’s Third Ward—the same seat that would be held by Tom McNamara from 2013-2017. Not long after joining the City Council, he helped save the life of a man who’d jumped off the State Street Bridge, leaping into the cold Rock River, along with Chief Deputy Circuit Clerk Fred Cooper and 16-year-old Fred Gabbard.

After winning election in 1975 to a full four-year term on the council, he declined to run again and in 1979 returned to his private law practice. He then ran for mayor in 1981, winning the Democratic primary followed by a victory over Norm Kearney general election to become Rockford’s 37th mayor.He was sworn in on the same night that current 10th Ward Alderman Frank Beach took office.

McNamara led the city through the national recession in 1982-83 which caused a depression in Rockford. The city’s industry was tied to the housing and automobile markets which were struggling nationally and Rockford lost 15,000 jobs, leading to more than 20 percent unemployment. Five percent of the city’s 140,000 population moved away. However, his optimistic and aggressive leadership, and work to reform the way the City did business, helped put the community back on its feet. He was re-elected in 1985, defeating then-Winnebago County Recorder Eugene Quinn.

In his State of the City address in 1986, McNamara reflected on how far the city and its people had come.

“From the depths of the depression we suffered in 1982-83, and amidst the tremendous pressures of lost and eroding financial support, our city has emerged strong, healthy and with a vibrancy and sense of self-worth heretofore lacking,” he said in the speech. “We face the challenges of the 80s in sound financial condition and with a ‘can do’ spirt that is exciting to witness and invigorating to share.”

McNamara chose not to seek a third term and endorsed City Administrator Charles Box, who would go on to become Rockford’s first Black mayor, serving three terms until 2001.

“My father was a true servant leader,” Mayor Tom McNamara said. “He served his family, his country and his community,” said Mayor Tom McNamara. “He has been my greatest influence in how I’ve lived my life, how I’ve helped lead our great city and how I want my children to live their lives.”

McNamara leaves his wife, Barbara, their six their children, and 15 grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

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