Pat Quinn's mom shows toughness, love on the campaign trail

  • Pat Quinn speaks with his mother during an interview at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago on Oct. 26, 2010.

      Pat Quinn speaks with his mother during an interview at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago on Oct. 26, 2010. George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

Updated 11/6/2010 6:06 PM

Eileen Quinn keeps up a pace daunting for a woman half her age.

The mother of Gov. Pat Quinn, a devout Catholic, attends daily Mass at St. Luke Church in River Forest, where, recalling a bit of her Irish heritage, she "prays for himself a lot."


On her 93rd birthday, Oct. 17, she was at Elmhurst College, watching her eldest debate Republican opponent state Sen. Bill Brady late into the night.

Days later, she was at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, at a Democratic Party rally featuring former President Bill Clinton.

"Do you need any help at the polling places on election day?" she asks campaign spokeswoman Mica Matsoff a few days before the election.

Mrs. Quinn sees this as nothing remarkable. She and her late husband, also named Patrick, but known as "P.J.," stood by their son's side in all of his 15 elections, starting with his bid 30 years ago for the Cook County Board of Tax Review.

"We've been to a few through the years, you know. In 30 years we've been pretty well involved," she said.

Pat Quinn chuckles as he recalls his successful bid for state treasurer in 1990, when his mother and father spent election day near a polling place in a Republican pocket of the city, passing out campaign leaflets and asking voters to punch the ballot for their son.

"It was hard to turn her down. They went our way," Quinn said.

The family credits Mrs. Quinn with the idea behind the governor's recent "You know me" ad. In the primary, she contributed $100,000 to his war chest.

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Mrs. Quinn describes her son as "very much the rock of our family," but if you ask Quinn or his two brothers, they'll tell you that place is rightly hers.

"We get our passion from our mother," says Quinn's youngest brother, John, a longtime history teacher and basketball coach at Fenwick High School, a Catholic school in Oak Park. "She's been the one to pound her fist. To stand up for things."

Mrs. Quinn, born and raised in Englewood, was married to Patrick Quinn, Jr., a naval officer, during a three-day leave in January 1943. The pair took the train to Indiana, honeymooning briefly before Patrick returned to serve in the Pacific.

Still sharp as a tack, Mrs. Quinn describes the way the bar of "American Family" soap her friends sneaked into her honeymoon suitcase had this "wonderful fragrance" that permeated her clothes.


She rattles off the addresses of their first apartment, in the city's South Shore neighborhood. Of her husband's Catholic Cemeteries office on North Dearborn Street.

Tiring of the commute, she said, the couple searched long and hard for a closer spot to build a home.

Shortly after having their first child, Patrick III, in 1948, the Quinns bought a lot in Hinsdale, building a modest ranch home there for $20,000.

Not long after they moved in, young Pat, just 2, attempted to paint some of the home with the bucket of driveway tar that had been leftover in the garage.

She said she caught him just in time.

"Providentially, he never spilled a drop," John Quinn laughed.

Raising Pat, John, and Tom, Mrs. Quinn said she and her husband tried not to stress "too many do's and don'ts." Instead, the question "What did you do for love today?" was asked of the boys at the end of each day.

"And I think the sprit of helping others probably was engendered early," Mrs. Quinn adds. "And fairness and probably some competitiveness."

Early family life is described as filled with old-fashioned fun. The boys spent much of their time playing football, baseball and running track.

Pat, nine years John's senior, fed his younger brother bottles, and read him "Cat in the Hat," he recalls.

"Maybe that's why I have such a good vocabulary," John Quinn laughed.

As the boys grew, Mrs. Quinn marked their height on the side of the bathroom door, a memento the governor has stored in his Galewood garage.

Along with raising her own sons, Mrs. Quinn worked as a secretary in Hinsdale schools for 30 years. Her eyes twinkle with a bit of mischief as she describes "infringing the rules a bit" once in awhile to help a few children stay out of the principal's office, noting it was "all for good."

She says she always knew her eldest son would lead a life of public service.

Pat wrote and published a newspaper as a small child, distributing it around the block on a weekly basis. At 10, she recalls, he organized his first community project, gathering the neighborhood boys together to transform an overgrown field into a ballpark.

At Fenwick, the Dominican Friars instilled a strong sense of social justice into the boys.

"Combating poverty, the building of a strong middle class were on our minds," John Quinn said.

That message resonated with the boys, who considered themselves beneficiaries of upward mobility through education. P.J. Quinn, who had dropped out of college to work during the depression, returned to earn his degree on the G.I. bill following the war, which allowed him a managerial position with Catholic Cemeteries.

A student at Georgetown University in the 1960s, Pat was enrolled in the school of foreign service.

"I've always said he's kind of been the rock of our family because my other two sons patterned themselves after him," Mrs. Quinn said.

John recalls sitting around the dinner table when Pat first formed the Illinois Coalition for Political Honesty in the 1970s and helping him pass out petitions when Quinn worked as a member of Democratic Gov. Dan Walker's staff.

Along with Mrs. Quinn, John and Tom Quinn have stood by their brother from in his early days as a community organizer, all the way through his bid for governor in his own right. The family, along with Quinn's two sons, Patrick IV and David, still have dinner together many Sunday nights.

Quinn was divorced in 1986. His son David, now 25, is studying for his MBA at the University of Chicago, while Patrick IV, 27, hopes to make the Olympic trials in the 10,000-meter run.

Mrs. Quinn says that while she never gave a second thought about spending so much time on the campaign trail, recent weeks haven't been easy.

"The last couple of weeks I've really had kind of a hard time. ... This campaign has been the hardest of all. I think it's been malicious. ... It seems to me everything (in certain newspapers) was so derogatory. I think they should have been a little more bipartisan. I cannot remember anything that they wrote complimentary about the things he's done. With Navistar and different things he should receive credit for."

"She's an Irish mother, she takes every sling and arrow for her son," John Quinn said.