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Former Highland Park Mayor Dan Pierce (right) stands with Highland Park Councilman Alyssa Knobel. Photos submitted
Pierce (left) celebrates a holiday with Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering (center) and Illinois State Senator Julie Morrison.
Pierce (right) attends Martin Luther King Day of Service.
Neil Milbert, Freelance Reporter
5:00 am CST February 21, 2020

Those who knew Dan Pierce remember him as a consummate public servant and a magnificent mentor.

“He loved being a public servant,” Highland Park Councilman Alyssa Knobel reflected. “That embodies who he was.

“He died as a public servant.”

Pierce, who served as a State Representative from 1965-85, as mayor of Highland Park from 1987-95 and 1999-2003 and as a member and two-term president of the North Shore Water Reclamation District Board of Trustees from 2004-14, died suddenly at age 91 on Feb. 13.

“I knew Dan for 50 years,” reminisced former State Representative and Highland Park City Councilman Karen May. “He never got burned out. His great intellect was not diminished at all with age.

“I count him as one of my greatest mentors. He was a mentor, a friend and a hero to many people across the state. He was beloved by so many people. He had opposition politically but in Springfield and around state government he was so respected.

“I’m devastated.”

Highland Park Mayor Nancy Rotering paid tribute to Pierce in a post on social media.

“With heavy hearts we bid farewell…to a dear friend and mentor,” she wrote on Twitter. “Dan brought an encyclopedic perspective to public service. He will be missed tremendously.”

In addition to his work in government, Pierce was an active member of Rotary International and the Jewish community.

He is survived by Rhoda, his wife of 39 years; sons Andrew, Anthony and Theodore; step-sons Eric and Peter; and seven grandchildren

A memorial service celebrating his life will be held this spring on a date to be determined at Congregation Makom Solel Lakeside.

Pierce was born on March 31, 1928 in Chicago and moved with his family to the North Shore during his boyhood.

After graduating from New Trier, he received his undergraduate degree and law degree from Harvard. During the Korean War he served in the U.S. Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps and attended the U.S. Air Force Command and Staff School.

When Pierce returned to civilian life he joined the now-disbanded Chicago law firm Altheimer, Gray, Naiburg, Strasburger and Lawton and subsequently became a partner.

From law he gravitated to politics.

“I met Dan when I was in the League of Women Voters and did voter registration,” recalled May. “I was running the candidate debate for the League of Women voters and I became a friend and a supporter. I worked multiple precincts for him when he ran for State Representative.”

During his years in Springfield, Pierce was the House minority whip for two terms and a member of the Democratic Study Group, a caucus of liberal democrats.

He chaired many legislative committees, one of which was the House Environment Committee.

As a mayor the environment remained high on his priority list so his subsequent service with the North Shore Reclamation District was a natural outgrowth. The district received two 2014 Peak Performance Awards from the National Association of Clean Water Agencies and was the recipient of the association’s Public Service Award.

“When he ran for mayor he cared about the suburban character of the community and preserving the historic areas,” May said. “When I was a representative (from 2001-12) I dealt with the same safety issues on Highway 41 as he did as a mayor. He was instrumental in leading the fight to get the approval and the funding for the Clavey Road overpass (on what had been a very dangerous stretch of Highway 41).”

Councilman Knobel said she “starting to get involved in politics and government” when she met Pierce: “I was working for State Representative May at the time and they were very close.”

Years later Knobel would serve as a Councilman when Pierce was the mayor.

“He taught everyone he mentored how to reach agreement with other people, the importance of smart negotiation and finding common ground,” she said. “He understood and taught so many of us about the value of listening. He taught me the best legislation is (enacted) when everybody gives a little. You walk away and feel like you got something and so does the other side. But he would never compromise his values for anything and he wouldn’t accept mediocrity.

“He was a very thoughtful man with an incredibly sharp sense of humor.”

According to May, “Dan knew everything about different counties and Republican and Democratic politics. He was a compelling intellect and he liked people. He was friendly with everyone. He always looked for the best in people. He was a proud Democrat but everyone respected him.  

“He was so devoted to Rhoda and so proud of her. Very few couples I know have the same relationship as Rhoda and Dan, people who care about government the way those two did. She was the perfect helpmate. They were two peas in a pod, caring about issues and standing up for what’s right.”