'He lived his life by example': Ex-congressman Fawell known for staying true to his principles
Colleagues, friends and family are remembering former congressman Harris Fawell as a man who hewed closely to his principles, was devoted to his family and faith, opposed wasteful government spending and was ahead of his time on such issues as health care and the environment.
Fawell, 92, died Thursday at his home of 57 years on Sleight Street in Naperville.
His onetime chief of staff, Alan Mertz, recalled Fawell as a man of ethics and morals who was highly dedicated to his work.
"He was unusual in that he would literally try to read the actual bills before he voted on them on the House floor," Mertz said. "He would keep us there the evening before (a vote), reading bills, discussing the pros and cons of legislation."
A Republican, Fawell served seven full terms in Congress from 1985 until his retirement in 1999, representing the 13th House District. Before that, he served in the Illinois state Senate.
Mertz said Fawell was fiscally conservative but could also be socially liberal. He was one of only two Republican Illinois state senators who helped pass Fair Housing legislation in the 1960s. He also publicly supported Barack Obama in 2008.
"On the fiscally conservative side, he really practiced what he preached," Mertz said, especially as it related to wasteful spending.
Along with Minnesota Democrat Tim Penny, Fawell built a bipartisan group called the Porkbusters' Coalition to go after "pork barrel" spending, stopping billions of dollars in projects.
His watchdog efforts even risked chafing Republican Party leadership, including the most powerful Republican in Congress at the time, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole. In 1993, he opposed 17 projects in Dole's home state of Kansas, including a $4 million grant to the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson, Kansas.
"He had his staff look at every appropriation bill before it came to the floor," Mertz said. "It didn't matter whether it was in a Republican's district or a Democrat's district."
Mertz said Fawell was way ahead of his time on the issue of health care, pursuing legislation that would enable small businesses to form health insurance pools.
"It was quite a battle," Mertz said. "The insurance industry opposed it."
Although Fawell spent many years in Washington, weekends meant coming home to Naperville.
Barbara Graham, his campaign manager and district director, said Fawell made sure he had local input on major congressional issues, she said.
"There was a business advisory committee. There was a science and technology (committee) made up of people throughout the district, not just in Naperville," she said. "We always had close relationships with the leaders of both Fermi and Argonne National Laboratory."
In six reelection campaigns, Fawell was opposed only once in a GOP primary, beating opponent Stuart Wesbury.
Fawell was born into a political family. His father, Walter Fawell, served as mayor of West Chicago.
At first it appeared that Harris Fawell, a graduate of West Chicago High School, would instead pursue a career as a major league baseball player. He even had a stint with the Detroit Tigers minor league affiliate in Greenville, South Carolina, while he was studying at North Central College in Naperville.
"He was so passionate about the White Sox," said his son, Richard Harris Fawell. "Baseball was everything in our household. I didn't even know there was another sport when I was a kid."
It was at North Central where he met his wife of 69 years, Ruth Johnson.
"He was a baseball player on the college team, and I thought he was pretty cute," she said Sunday.
At the time, Ruth was studying English, while Harris was doing his prelaw work. Fawell would later earn his law degree at the Kent College of Law.
After his graduation from college, Fawell served as an assistant state's attorney for DuPage County. It was while he was a prosecutor that the political bug bit.
"There were a group of Young Turks who were in the Republican Party at that time who were planning on becoming influential in the party," Ruth Fawell said. "They were a bunch of young guys who were ambitious and talked politics."
Among them were William Bauer, who became a federal judge, and John Erlenborn, who preceded Fawell in Congress.
Fawell ran an unsuccessful campaign for state senator when he was 29. A subsequent bid was successful, and he served in the state Senate from 1963 to 1977.
He was named Outstanding Freshman State Senator by the Illinois Press Association. While in Springfield, he sponsored legislation that would have called for developers to donate park land to communities. Although that legislation was defeated, it ultimately led to the Naperville Land Cash Donation Ordinance, which Fawell spearheaded.
During his congressional tenure, he was not a Washington insider, family and colleagues said.
"Harris was a very studious person. When he could have been schmoozing, he was in the office doing research on whatever bill he was supposed to be studying," Ruth Fawell said.
Two important influences were his mother, Mildred, and his father-in-law, Bensenville Elementary District 2 school Superintendent Wesley A. Johnson.
Ruth Fawell said her husband and his family, which included three children, eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren, also enjoyed time at a summer home on Beaver Island, Michigan.
"He loved working in the yard," said his son, John Fawell. "He always had shears in his hand."
"People who knew him in the public sphere would probably have been surprised at how introverted and reflective a guy he was," he said.
John Fawell said his father had a strong interest in religious issues and enjoyed Gandhi's works, as well as Tolstoy's religious works.
"He always had perspective to offer. He gave us all an ability to get through hard times, because he had a larger perspective," he said.
After leaving Congress, Fawell wrote articles that appeared in The International Journal of Servant Leadership, at Gonzaga University.
"He was really taken with the notion of servant leadership as a way of improving business practices and relations between business and employees," John Fawell said.
Fawell's post-politics life also included serving on the board of trustees of North Central College.
"He lived his life by example," Richard Harris Fawell said. "He never told us to do anything. He showed us. And that, to me, was his greatest legacy."
Private family services have been held.