Naperville's longest-serving mayor, George Pradel, dies at 80

 
 
Updated 9/4/2018 5:32 PM
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  • Naperville's longest-serving Mayor George Pradel has died after a battle with the cancer multiple myeloma. He was 80.

    Naperville's longest-serving Mayor George Pradel has died after a battle with the cancer multiple myeloma. He was 80. Daily Herald File Photo

  • Naperville's longest-serving Mayor George Pradel has died after a battle with the cancer multiple myeloma. He was 80.

    Naperville's longest-serving Mayor George Pradel has died after a battle with the cancer multiple myeloma. He was 80. Daily Herald File Photo

  • Former Naperville Mayor George Pradel

    Former Naperville Mayor George Pradel

  • Former Naperville Mayor George Pradel was a fixture at countless events throughout the city, including this appearance at the 2008 New Year's Eve Bubble Bash at the DuPage Children's Museum.

    Former Naperville Mayor George Pradel was a fixture at countless events throughout the city, including this appearance at the 2008 New Year's Eve Bubble Bash at the DuPage Children's Museum. Daily Herald file photo

  • Pradel was a regular at fundraisers in Naperville, including appearances in grocery store races to raise money for food pantries.

    Pradel was a regular at fundraisers in Naperville, including appearances in grocery store races to raise money for food pantries. Daily Herald file photo

  • One of Pradel's fondest accomplishments as mayor was the creation of Safety Town.

    One of Pradel's fondest accomplishments as mayor was the creation of Safety Town. Daily Herald file photo

  • A symbol of the former mayor's popularity: A George Pradel bobblehead.

    A symbol of the former mayor's popularity: A George Pradel bobblehead. Daily Herald file photo

For five decades, George Pradel personified Naperville.

For those who knew him, even briefly, he always will.

The city's longest-serving mayor, A. George Pradel died Tuesday from multiple myeloma. He was 80, just one day short of his 81st birthday.

A lifelong Naperville resident, Pradel first gained fame as the police department's "Officer Friendly." He became mayor in 1995 and served until 2015, when he was named mayor emeritus.

"George's enthusiasm for this city and love for its residents was second only to the love for his family -- in fact, it was the Pradel family's support for him that allowed George to devote so much of his life to Naperville," City Manager Doug Krieger said Tuesday.

"George was the kind of man who knew everyone's name and, when he saw you, no matter how busy he was, he'd stop and see how you were doing.

"Everyone was equal in George's eyes. You were a cherished member of his extended Naperville family, and from the first time he met you, you were a friend."

During his 20 years as mayor, Pradel was honored countless times. On Washington Street sits a sculpture depicting him as a police officer greeting children. A street and a park are named in his honor. His face is on several murals. Restaurants named rooms and gardens and sandwiches after him. A radio station named him the area's sexiest mayor. There was even a bobblehead sold in his likeness.

He was always proclaiming himself "so proud!" of all things Naperville, with an unforgettable, booming and energetic emcee's voice. He opened nearly every event by saying -- no, shouting -- "Welcome to Naperville!"

A larger-than-life figure, Pradel and the city he served became one in the same: His presence was a constant felt throughout the community and he, in turn, fed off the city's love.

When Naperville was a mid-sized suburb, beginning to outgrow its small-town roots but maintaining a family-friendly feel, Pradel was a police officer. He joined the force in 1966 and made his top priority children, teaching them to stay safe and letting them know someone was watching out for them. His actions made him Officer Friendly before he even took on the title as his nickname.

When Naperville was a growing city, expanding as developers turned farm fields into sprawling subdivisions, Pradel was a mayor. An unlikely mayor at that -- the faithful, cheerful cop never intended to take on the role.

He didn't look or act like the mayor of one of the state's largest cities. There was nothing button-down about him. He was short and bald and round. He wasn't afraid to dress in crazy costumes, wearing wigs or top hats and always happy to play Santa.

He didn't hesitate to burst into song. If you invited him to make an appearance -- whether before thousands or for a dozen -- he was there. He never pretended to be what he was not.

He became mayor because a handful of residents asked him to seek the seat, and Pradel never did master the art of tactfully saying "no." With only a concession speech prepared, he won his first election in 1995, defeating a two-term city council member who worked in human resources for DuPage County. The newly minted mayor took office that spring. His hometown pride never ceased.

Born in Hyde Park on Sept. 5, 1937, as one of six children, Pradel was 2 when his family moved to a small house on Van Buren Avenue in Naperville. He always called it home.

Growing up, he developed a love of music and a faith in God. As a self-described "110-pound midget" during his school days, he learned to play the French horn. His mother encouraged him to get involved in whatever he could.

"My mom was very religious and taught me that to have real joy, you need to put Jesus first, others second and yourself last," he said in 2005.

When he was a child, he wanted to run an orphanage, and that desire may have been a precursor of his calling to public service. That service began in the Marines as a corporal and continued when he became a police officer, accepted onto the Naperville force when the department made an exception to its 5-foot, 10-inch height requirement to allow the veteran to serve. He was 5 feet, 7 inches tall at the time.

Pradel worked as an officer and eventually a lieutenant during 29 years on the force. Later as mayor, he swore in or promoted 371 officers, never delegating the responsibility to anyone else. While on the force, if Pradel wasn't in the station or out patrolling his downtown beat, fellow cops knew where to find him. Pradel would be in the schools, always, always, always working with kids.

"If it wouldn't have been for George, many of the kids and people in this community would not be where they're at," Jon Ripsky, a retired Naperville police captain who worked with Pradel, said in 2015.

Pradel taught crime prevention in classrooms and extended his work with children to the city's new Safety Town. There, he taught railroad safety and recruited youngsters to join his Big Wheel brigade that pedaled in holiday parades. Safety Town, which Pradel called his proudest achievement as mayor, was renamed in May 2015 in honor of him and his wife, Pat.

A young Pradel met Patricia Carol Burke on a setup orchestrated by his sister, and they had their first date at a stock car race. They were married Aug. 20, 1960, as "young lovebirds" and their relationship endured until Pat's death in August 2015 of bone cancer. A decade before her death, Pat summed up her husband's caring nature and generous heart.

"He's always been a giving person. He never uses any curse words, never gets really angry," Pat Pradel said in 2005. "He is really thankful for the little things."

The Pradel family, including daughter Carol, sons George and Gary, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, often had to give up time with their husband, father or grandpa. But in the giving, there was a lesson, Carol Pradel said in 2005.

"This is what you do. You give," she said her father taught the family. "He really is the best dad in the world. Maybe by us giving up our dad a lot of the time, that's part of our sacrifice to help others."

As mayor, Pradel was all about helping others, even though he began to endure heart trouble not too long after taking office. He suffered a mild heart attack in 2010 but returned to the job shortly after -- there being so much to do to promote and improve and love Naperville.

He would race through grocery stores, collecting as much food as possible during charity shopping events for Loaves & Fishes Community Services. He would pose for red-carpet photos with young participants in KidsMatter contests to produce anti-cyberbullying videos. Cancer prevention and heart health were the causes about which he cared the most.

His door always was open to listen to residents, and his presence always was requested -- be it at ribbon-cuttings, charity dinners, fundraising walks, anniversaries, graduations, even at the ceremonial first flush of the toilets in a new bathroom building. He looked forward each year to rib-judging day at the Exchange Club's Ribfest, packing a reusable container to stash each sample after he'd savor a bite. In the winter, he'd hop in a city plow when snow would fall and join the public works crews in clearing the streets.

His day as mayor often began at 6:30 a.m. and didn't end until 10 p.m. He added to his duties by serving as an auxiliary park district police officer to patrol special events.

After winning his first race in a hotly contested campaign against three other candidates that even required a primary before the general election, he never again faced a serious political threat.

On the rare occasion when any group of residents became truly frustrated with him, they would quickly back down and become almost apologetic. When a Chicago newspaper columnist wrote a sarcastic piece about Naperville, Pradel invited him to tour the city, and the columnist quickly changed his tune. When large businesses contemplated moving to Naperville, Pradel was always the "closer," the guy who would come in and frequently disarm the big money men with his down-home approach.

When Pradel finally stepped down after a record five terms and 20 years as mayor, he still wasn't ready to stop. He pledged to "still be around" in Naperville after his retirement on May 3, 2015, and made a pitch for a new title -- Mayor Emeritus -- which his successor Mayor Steve Chirico granted a month later.

Pradel's final year in office was something of a thank-you tour, a time for him to show gratitude to all who collaborated to make the city's success possible. His final meeting was the reverse, a time for many of the local, regional and national leaders he served with to say their thanks to him.

"The mayor led Naperville with his signature mix of charm and compassion," U.S. Rep. Bill Foster said during a proclamation he read in Congress before Pradel's final meeting in April 2015. To Pradel, he said, "Your dedication to the community and your energy and enthusiasm for serving Naperville will never be forgotten."

On Tuesday, Mayor Steve Chirico remembered Pradel as "the kind of community-focused individual that blesses a town once in a lifetime. His name will forever be remembered in our city, and when people think of him, they will remember an individual who quietly and humbly gave of himself through his 29 years as a police officer and then for two decades as our longest-serving mayor.

"A cheerleader and champion to all, George's legacy will live on through the city he helped shape ... This wonderful man will not be forgotten."

Indeed, if a city ever can have a memory, Naperville will remember Pradel. He'll go down as the city's longest-serving mayor, as municipal leaders now are restricted by term limits to 12 years in any one office. The park and street and Officer Friendly sculpture will always bear his name. And generations of residents will continue to recall him as they always have -- instantly, easily, lovingly -- as the city's cheerleader, ambassador and heart.

If Pradel could choose them, these might just be his parting words to the community he loved so much. He directed them to all of his well-wishers in April 2015, as he entered his final days as mayor, completing the service that defined him for decades:

"Keep up the good work," Pradel urged, "and make Naperville shine for years to come."

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