Bob Michel, the quiet, conservative, consensus-builder who served four decades in Congress under six presidents and rose to lead U.S. House Republicans, died Friday morning. He was 93.
His House successor, Ray LaHood, confirmed Michel's death. According to LaHood, Michel died about 6:30 a.m. CST at Virginia Hospital Center in Arlington, Va., where he had been a patient.
"Bob had a wonderful life, and he lived it to the fullest," LaHood said. "But I think of him as the gold standard for public service.
"He represented everything good about public service and represented the best qualities and the best values about being involved in public service and represented the best qualities and the best values about being involved in politics."
Michel represented the Peoria area in the U.S. House from 1957 through 1995, serving six years as minority whip before becoming the GOP leader in 1981.
It's a post he retired from just as the House majority was in his party's grasp, though Michel's tenure was marked more by negotiation and what he called "gentle persuasion" than by the sharp-edged, more ideological fights that followed.
That kind of approach to governing helped shape a generation of staffers and colleagues.
"He was a mentor to a lot of people, including myself," LaHood said.
Reaction from Capitol Hill was swift and glowing
"What a life well-lived by this great and gracious man," the current House speaker, Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, said in a statement.
In another statement, U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos said: "Whether it was his courageous service in World War II, his work to strengthen Illinois or his bipartisan approach to leadership in Congress, Bob Michel was one of Peoria's best."
Bustos, a Democrat from Moline, represents most of Peoria south of War Memorial Drive and most of Pekin.
"Bob is remembered for his uncommon decency and his common-sense Midwestern values," U.S. Rep. Darin LaHood, R-Peoria, said in a statement.
Darin LaHood is Ray LaHood's son and represents the areas of Peoria that Bustos does not.
Michel is given credit for shepherding Reagan-era economic policies, from tax reform to Social Security reform, through the House by reaching across the aisle to conservative Democrats.
"He was a consummate legislator and consensus builder who believed that regardless of your political ideology or partisan agenda, you had to build bridges to be successful," Michel's family said in a statement announcing his death. "(He) was known as a straight shooter whose word was as good as gold, and his firm handshake a guarantee of good faith."
So it was for his colleague, Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, now deceased, who told The Associated Press shortly before Michel left Congress that he was the Republican the Chicago Democrat preferred to work with when he wanted to achieve something.
"When I would have a problem with respect to the tax-reform act and the budget compromises, it would ultimately be Bob Michel that I would sit down with because Tip O'Neill would be suggesting: 'Get this thing done,' " Rostenkowski said.
"We came here to legislate and ... do what the political process calls for: Compromise. And I think Bob Michel was one of those people that was totally committed to a view of conservatism but yet not so obstinate that he didn't realize that politics is the art of give and take."
That's what made him so effective and well-liked, said Frank Mackaman, executive director of the Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin, which houses Michel's congressional papers.
"He was humble, genuinely, and didn't suffer an outsized ego that so many politicians suffer from," Mackaman said. "He conducted himself with such civility and respect for the opposition. He was every bit a partisan, but he never referred to his adversaries as opponents or enemies."
Facing only one close re-election campaign in his 38-year tenure was a sign "that speaks really well to how he fit his values and policies to central Illinois," Mackaman said.
Michel, who served through seven presidencies and under six House speakers, was lauded for his service, both while he was in office and after his retirement. Among the many entities bearing his name:
• the Downtown bridge between Peoria and East Peoria, which replaced the old Franklin Street Bridge;
• Bradley University's student center;
• the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Northwest Peoria;
• the suite of rooms used in the Capitol by the House leadership.
Michel was born March 2, 1923, in Peoria and raised by parents active in the Apostolic Christian Church. At his father's insistence, he worked while going through Peoria Public Schools, so Michel held jobs ranging from mowing yards and delivering newspapers to working in a tailor shop, factory and grocery store.
The Peoria High School alumnus briefly attended Bradley before joining the Army to fight in World War II. There, he was among the later waves to land in Normandy as part of the D-Day invasion and also participated in the Battle of the Bulge. Wounded in action and credited with capturing a German machine-gun unit, Michel was awarded two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart and four battle stars for his service.
"There were some who thought he was too easy-going with his friends across the aisle, but no one accused him of being soft after the Invasion of Normandy," former U.S. President George H.W. Bush said in a statement.
After the war he returned to Bradley, where he graduated in 1948, marrying his wife Corinne the same year. In 1949 he began work on the staff of then Rep. Harold Velde, who he succeeded in 1957.
Michel was married for 55 years to Corinne, who died in 2003. The two of them together raised four children — Scott, Bruce, Laurie and Robin — who survive him, as do five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Visitation will be from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Feb. 24 at Wilton Mortuary, 2102 N. Knoxville Ave. A memorial service will be Saturday, Feb. 25. It will be open to the public on Bradley University's campus. The time and location are still being determined, though Bradley University hopes to have details finalized by Monday.
Michel's college alma mater will fly its flags at half-staff for five days, according to a statement from Bradley President Gary Roberts.
Chris Kaergard can be reached at 686-3255 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisKaergard. Nick Vlahos contributed to this article.