Honoring Bob Michel
February 17, 2017
Retired Congressman Robert H. Michel ’48 passed away on February 17. Nationally known for his 38-year career on Capitol Hill, Michel is fondly remembered in Peoria for his enduring love for his wife Corinne and their four children, his lifelong devotion to Bradley University and his commitment to serve his hometown and his constituents.
“Congressman Michel and his wife Corinne were true models of dedicated public servants,” said Bradley University President Gary Roberts. “The University and the community are indebted to the Michels for their loyalty to their alma mater and their distinguished leadership in our community and the nation.”
Brad McMillan, executive director of Bradley’s Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service, added, "Bob Michel was a great role model for the bipartisan, ethical and civil leadership we teach our Bradley students interested in public service. He treated colleagues from both parties with mutual respect, was known for his integrity and placed the best interests of the country above partisan politics. Bob Michel was truly a statesman and a gentleman. He will be deeply missed."
His friends and colleagues remember his excellent singing voice, his skill as an orator, his sincerity, his talent for consensus building and his avid patriotism, all without putting on airs.
The son of French immigrants, the World War II Army veteran participated in the invasion of Normandy and returned to Peoria after he was injured by machine gun fire in the Allies’ famous and decisive Allied victory in the Battle of the Bulge. He received a Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars and four battle stars.
Michel enrolled at Bradley, joining Alpha Pi (later Sigma Nu) fraternity and the a cappella choir, where he met Corinne Woodruff ’47, the love of his life. A business administration major, Michel was treasurer of his sophomore class at Bradley, and his leadership style caught the attention of the Bradley administration. As Michel neared graduation, Bradley’s president urged him to apply for a job with Judge Harold Velde, who was running for election to fill the seat of legendary Congressman Everett M. Dirksen when he stepped down and became a U.S. Senator two years later. Velde needed an assistant, and Michel’s first job after college opened the door to a lifelong career in politics.
A Republican serving during nine presidencies, Michel represented the 18th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from January 3, 1957 to January 3, 1995 and was minority leader for the last 14 years of his career.
Frank Mackaman of the Dirksen Congressional Center said, “Bob distinguished between Republicanism and conservatism. He stated on several occasions that he was not ‘the poster boy of ideological conservatives.’ For one, he did not believe that government was the enemy—he believed that bad government was the enemy. He also took pains to distinguish his approach from that of Newt Gingrich when he stated, ‘I believe that our system works best when differing parties are willing to try to reach some kind of compromise for the common good.’”
Mackaman added, “Bob would be the first to tell you that partisanship serves a useful purpose if it is accompanied by civility. He believed that robust partisan debate can produce better ideas, better public policy than otherwise would be the case. But unbridled partisanship—that’s another story.”
At the conclusion of his presidency, Ronald Reagan presented Michel with the Presidential Citizens Medal and said Michel was a man with great legislative ability and personal integrity and was a champion of effective and honest government. In 1994, President Bill Clinton presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“He was as fine a listener as I have ever been around,” said Gary Anna ’75, Bradley senior vice president for business affairs. “In a very unassuming and unalarming style, he could cut to the core issues of a problem. There was a special ingredient there. He was never edgy about issues and ultimately, he had an ‘aw, shucks’ attitude that should never be confusing to his ability or capability.”
Michel’s voice, both as singer and speaker, was yet another of his assets. “He instinctively knew how to use his voice and could be an orator with the best of them. When he spoke, people listened. He didn’t mince words,” Anna said. “He was such a good listener and when he had something to say, it generally had real meaning to it.”
Michel did not see those who disagreed with him as enemies, but rather as political adversaries whose primary goal, like his, was to work for the good of the country. On occasion, he was disappointed with what he called members’ “ethical lapses,” but sought to find common ground and work together with everyone.
While Michel spent most of his time in Washington, D.C., he always remembered his alma mater and his hometown.
He served on Bradley’s Board of Trustees from 1982 to 1994, and upon his retirement from the board, he was given the prestigious distinction of Honorary Trustee. Only three other board members have received this distinction: Gen. John Shalikashvili, David Markin and Samuel Rothberg.
Michel was instrumental in securing federal funding from the U.S. Department of Defense to build Bradley’s Caterpillar Global Communications Center, which was dedicated in 1996. At a gala salute at the time of his retirement, an estimated $1.3 million was raised to establish the Robert and Corinne Michel Endowed Scholarship.
He frequently returned to campus to talk to students about his experiences on Capitol Hill and to discuss the importance of civility in politics. He was the first guest speaker after the opening of Bradley’s Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service.
Michel received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Bradley in 1981, and in 1994, he was appointed Distinguished Adjunct Professor of American Government. He was a member of the Bradley Centurion Society and was the recipient of Bradley’s Distinguished Alumnus Award. The Hilltop’s student center was named the Robert H. Michel Student Center in 1999, in appreciation for all that Michel had done for his alma mater.
In the closing paragraph of Michel’s retirement announcement, on October 4, 1993, he commented, “I’d like to feel that as I prepare to leave the Congress, I’ve lived up to my parents’ high ethical standard and that I’ll be remembered by my constituents for representing them faithfully and well, and that nationally I will be judged as having contributed significantly to the deliberations of the House and served the institution of the Congress with honor and in an exemplary fashion.”
Bob Michel was a patriot who served his country, his state, his community and his alma mater well. A humble gentleman, he expected his fellow politicians to put aside their personal interests and strive to move the country forward. A true statesman, he had strong beliefs but was willing to listen and discuss opposing views to reach a compromise. Bob Michel’s high ideals and Midwestern values are reflected in a lifetime of service that advanced our University, our community and our country.