Edward Derwinski, who represented Chicago's south side and adjoining suburbs in Congress for nearly a quarter-century before becoming the nation's first secretary of Veterans Affairs, died Sunday of cancer at a nursing home in Oak Brook, Ill., his family said. He was 85.
After serving one term in the Illinois Legislature, he ran successfully for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1958 and held the seat until losing a primary race in 1982 after the boundaries of his district were redrawn.
President Reagan kept Derwinski in Washington by appointing him to the State Department as a top counselor and trouble-shooter. He rose to undersecretary for national security affairs during his six years there.
One of his first major assignments was coordinating the work of federal and state law enforcement agencies in connection with the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Derwinski's outgoing personality served him well in Washington, according to Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)
"He was utterly personable and made you feel like part of the team," Kirk said. He "was well-grounded in his principles and his patriotism but brought a gritty, Chicagoland get-it-done feel to his work."
In 1989, Derwinski became the first person to head the Department of Veterans Affairs after the former Veterans Administration was renamed and given Cabinet-level status.
The relationship between Derwinski, who served in the Army during World War II, and veterans organizations proved to be stormy.
Although he substantially increased the Veterans Affairs budget, Derwinski infuriated veterans already upset over declining healthcare benefits when he proposed opening up two underused veterans hospitals to non-veterans. A proposal to eliminate smoking at the hospitals also proved unpopular.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars called for his resignation, and he was booed at an American Legion convention in 1992. He soon resigned and joined President George H.W. Bush's reelection campaign.
A descendant of Polish immigrants, Edward Joseph Derwinski was born Sept. 15, 1926, in Chicago.
After his father died in 1947, he took over the family's savings and loan, helping it grow dramatically. He earned a bachelor's degree in 1951 from Loyola University Chicago.
When he was named to the Veterans Administration post, there was controversy during his Senate confirmation hearing over what he admitted was a "rather stupid" mistake he'd made in 1977. He had tipped off a South Korean diplomat to the impending defection to the U.S. of one of its intelligence agents.
At the time, Derwinski was the ranking Republican on a House subcommittee investigating influence-peddling known as "Koreagate." Federal sources said the defector and his family were escorted to safety only 30 minutes before Korean agents arrived at his U.S. home.
The Senate said Derwinski's record was otherwise unblemished and unanimously confirmed him.
Well into retirement, the plain-spoken Derwinski mentored several Republican lawmakers, including Christine Radogno, a leader in the Illinois Senate.
He taught her to "always keep perspective," she said, and to remember that "every issue is not the end of the world."
Derwinski is survived by his wife, Bonnie; daughter, Maureen Quattrocki; son, Michael; stepdaughter, Maggie Hickey; stepson, Kevin Hickey; a sister, Bernadette Ferrara; and seven grandchildren.