“MacKay.” I struggled for some time with how to render those six letters, in a vain attempt to convey some sense of what it was like to hear Pete pick up the other end of the phone line. I could never do justice to the experience. Somehow, Pete managed to stretch the two short syllables of his last name out over several seconds and to turn them into a summary of his whole being: from the low and humble muh to the crescendoing kAY, following by the falling Ay, which the person making the phone call might have mistaken for a syllable in itself, had he not known better.
His was a voice so deep and rich and, outside of the Winnebago County Board meeting room and other political venues, so soft-spoken that it was sometimes hard for me to make out what Pete was saying over the phone. But I never had any trouble understanding his name. If a man’s word is his bond, Pete’s family name was his honor.
Peter M. MacKay passed into eternal life on December 13, 2011, at the age of 78. He was among the last of a certain generation of public servants—no politician, Pete—who were born early enough to remember the hardships of the Great Depression and the sacrifices of World War II, but late enough to come of age during the middle of the “American Century.” Those experiences helped make him the man that he was: Frugal and patriotic were among the words that always sprang to mind when Pete’s name was mentioned.
There were other words as well: principled and loyal chief among them. At Pete’s funeral on December 17 at Saint Edward’s Catholic Church in southeast Rockford, Frank Manzullo, one of Pete’s two oldest friends and brother of longtime U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, read a letter that he had written to Pete during the final hours of Pete’s life. (He wrote the last sentences after learning that Pete had passed away.) In it, Frank recalled Pete’s first heart attack, on a day when Frank and Don were supposed to have dinner with then Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Instead, Frank was there at the hospital when Pete arrived by ambulance, because, he said, “You taught me the value of loyalty.”
Pete was the kind of man who inspired loyalty, because he was so loyal himself. First elected to the Winnebago County Board in 1978, he served his district until 2009, with only one interruption. The voters of his district—even those who didn’t entirely agree with him—trusted Pete because they knew where he stood. Too often politicians convince themselves that they need guile in order to advance their principles, and eventually end up full of guile and devoid of principle; but there was no guile in Pete MacKay. He knew what he believed; he told the voters what he believed; and he voted his conscience, every single time.
Pete still believed in the Old America, and no amount of fancy talk could convince him that the country he knew and loved, at least as he knew and loved her, was gone for good.
With his handlebar mustache and his increasingly white beard, Pete looked like a man out of time—and, in a sense, he was. He still believed in the Old America, and no amount of fancy talk could convince him that the country he knew and loved, at least as he knew and loved her, was gone for good. For Pete, the Constitution didn’t require interpretation; it was perfectly clear, and anyone who couldn’t see that didn’t want to see it. Not without reason was Pete occasionally called Winnebago County’s Ron Paul, and, indeed, Ron Paul was the public servant he admired the most (followed closely by Ronald Reagan).
But if he was a man out of time, Pete was never a man out of place. He was born in Rockford and lived here all of his life, with the exception of a stint in the Army (where he rose to the rank of drill sergeant) and a few years as a police officer in Chicago. Other local elected officials (especially Pete’s bête noire Kris Cohn) saw their offices as stepping stones to something greater. But Pete was happy right where he was. For him, politics wasn’t about promoting Pete MacKay; it was about advancing policies in the best interests of his constituents.
Pete wasn’t just the first winner of The Rockford Institute’s Good and Faithful Servant Award; he was the man for whom we created it. The event caused a bit of a stir, because between the time that we had notified Pete of our desire to honor him with the award and the public announcement of the same, Pete had decided to jump into the Republican primary for Winnebago County Board chairman, in an attempt to unseat the incumbent Republican holder of the office, Kris Cohn. A number of local dignitaries declined to attend the award ceremony, or even to send a note of congratulations to be read, ostensibly because they thought The Rockford Institute was trying to influence the race. The chain of events was proof enough that we weren’t, though after Pete’s announcement, Aaron Wolf and I (in a personal capacity) worked hard on his campaign. Though Pete lost (and by a fairly large margin), I never had so much fun working on an election. Pete was a signmaker by trade (he took over his father’s business), and the one minor transgression of the law that he was willing to tolerate concerned the placement of campaign signs. The night that a few shadowy figures nailed a four-foot by eight-foot MacKay yard sign to the wooden fence of a restaurant frequented by Kris Cohn and her cronies has become the stuff of legend. The sign stayed up almost until the day of the primary, because Cohn and the other professional politicians approached the restaurant from the north—the side closest to the county administration building—while the sign was on a fence to the south side of the restaurant, a direction from which only normal people would approach.
The night that a few shadowy figures nailed a four-foot by eight-foot MacKay yard sign to the wooden fence of a restaurant frequented by Kris Cohn and her cronies has become the stuff of legend.
During his campaign for county-board chairman, Pete trusted me to write the text of his radio commercials, and a small band of happy warriors who have appeared in this column over the years, including Aaron Wolf, Mark Dahlgren, Mary Hitchcock, Ward Sterett, and Art Johnson, recorded them. Pete insisted, though, on ending each with his own tagline: “I’m Pete MacKay, and when I’m elected county board chairman, I’ll drive my own car.”
Writers’ memories aren’t always the most reliable, because over time we tend to remake events as they should have been rather than exactly as they were, a tendency exaggerated when writing about Pete because his personality lent itself so easily to mythmaking. Still, if Pete didn’t flub one of the takes of that tagline by saying, “ . . . I’ll drive my own damn car,” he should have. The fact that the county provided Chairman Cohn with a tricked-out SUV was, for Pete, the perfect symbol of the corruption that had led to the creation of a separate elected county-board chairmanship to begin with. (Most other county boards in Illinois elect their chairman from among the members of the board.)
Many years before, when the position was first created, Pete gave the voters of Winnebago County one last chance to undo the damage, by running for county-board chairman on a platform of abolishing the office as soon as he was sworn in. Alas, after Pete lost that race, everything he predicted came true: County government (and, consequently, county taxes) increased dramatically under the elected county-board chairman, and the residents of Winnebago County lost a number of their freedoms—and too many lost their property, as the county (especially in the Kris Cohn years) aggressively used an especially virulent form of eminent domain known as “Quick Take” to pursue unnecessary public projects.
Pete was a man of few regrets. The stupidity and mendacity of local politicians angered him, and he was disappointed when the voters rejected his attempts to do what he knew to be right on their behalf, but as much as he liked to recount the stories of past defeats (and occasional victories) Pete saw no sense in complaining about things that could not be undone. He focused instead on what he could do, which led him, in the last phase of his public life, to combine his service on the county board with two terms as Rockford Township Highway Commissioner, where he lowered the road tax levy for four years straight, while providing the same level of service.
That Pete endorsed candidates he believed in regardless of party affiliation had always annoyed many local Republicans; that they supported a Democrat they did not believe in just to defeat Pete tells you everything you need to know about their commitment to principle and party loyalty.
Pete’s example of efficient local government was not appreciated by other local politicians, especially his fellow Republicans, who, in January 2009, while Pete’s beloved wife Rosie lay dying of cancer, held a caucus rather than a primary in order to try to deprive him of the Republican nomination for highway commissioner. Even though Pete wasn’t at the caucus, his old friend Frank Manzullo placed his name in nomination, and Pete emerged victorious, on the saddest day of his life: Rosie had passed away while the caucus was taking place.
Foiled briefly, those same Republicans quietly threw their support behind the Democratic candidate in the general election, and Pete suffered his final defeat. That Pete endorsed candidates he believed in regardless of party affiliation had always annoyed many local Republicans; that they supported a Democrat they did not believe in just to defeat Pete tells you everything you need to know about their commitment to principle and party loyalty.
The few things Pete did regret were those over which he had had some control. He and Rosie had dated in the 1960’s, but they drifted apart only to reconnect in 1978 and get married in 1980. They had two daughters, Margo and Meredith, in rapid succession (13 months apart), but age prevented them from expanding their family further. Every time we spoke, no matter how recently we had previously talked, Pete asked about my children, and told me how blessed Amy and I were to have had such a large brood. Similarly, when he finally entered Rosie’s Catholic Church in the last years of her life and they had their marriage blessed, his only regret was that he had waited so long. He embraced the Faith with a joy reminiscent of St. John Chrysostom’s Easter Homily: “For the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first. He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.”
Well done, Pete, thou good and faithful servant. May God grant you eternal rest.
First published in the February 2012 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.