GARY — Friends and colleagues remember former Mayor Rudy Clay as a man proud of his city, devoted to his constituents and most of all, the ultimate politician.
From his signature “mutton chop” sideburns, to his flashy suits and gold jewelry, Mr. Clay was always recognizable.
Mr. Clay, 77, died early Tuesday afternoon.
“Rudy was probably the most unique public official we’ve had in Gary. He has been an icon in this area,” State Rep. Vernon Smith said Tuesday afternoon.
“He knew how to politic better than anybody. He knew how to endear himself to the citizens.”
State Sen. Earline Rogers, the former mayor’s neighbor, spoke to Mr. Clay late last month. “He was just fine. Nothing he said suggested that in a week or so he would be gone,” she said. “He meant a lot to me personally and to this city.”
As he battled prostate cancer, Mr. Clay tired more easily, but continued a grueling schedule almost until his last day in public office.
Longtime friend and personal driver Lorenzo Davis, a Gary police detective, said he was continually impressed with Mr. Clay’s stamina, working long hours day after day. “Sometimes I had a hard time keeping up.”
State Rep. Charlie Brown said he will have a hard time imagining the political arena without Mr. Clay. “It was like Rudy Clay was immortal,” Brown said, describing Mr. Clay as a survivor and “one that got things done.”
Richard Comer, who served as deputy mayor for Richard Gordon Hatcher, said Mr. Clay’s death marks “the end of a political era. He had an absolute passion for what he did and for this area.”
Like many who faced off against Mr. Clay over the years, Comer said that despite differences of opinion, they remained friends.
“However you felt about him politically, you had to like him as a person,” Comer said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said Tuesday afternoon he was “totally overwhelmed” to learn of Mr. Clay’s death.
“I am totally shocked, but I appreciate his legacy of service,” Jackson said.
The civil rights leader remembered Mr. Clay was always “smiling, styling and profiling,” but he also said the former mayor had substance — Jackson said Mr. Clay never stopped trying to build coalitions in Northwest Indiana or the state legislature.
Republican State Sen. Ed Charbonneau said he knew Mr. Clay from the time he was a state representative, continuing through his many terms as county commissioner and finally as mayor. “I found him to be a genuinely nice guy,” Charbonneau said.
Both U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, and the Indiana Democratic Party issued statements noting Mr. Clay’s passing and his contributions to Northwest Indiana,
“Mr. Clay fought for civil rights, equality, economic opportunity and social justice. These are the core values of the Democratic party and we will greatly miss him,” party chairman John Zody stated.
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said he was always struck by Mr. Clay’s spiritual devotion. “He was a man of faith, he always began by recognizing God.”
Davis agreed. “When it came to loving people and God, he really instilled that in me.”
U.S. Sen. Joseph Donnelly, D-Ind., praised Clay’s leadership: “Mayor Clay was a tireless leader for Gary and all of Northwest Indiana, representing his community at the county, state, and citywide level. The thoughts and prayers of my family are with Mayor Clay’s family and friends. He will be missed.”
Funeral arrangements for Mr. Clay are not complete.