GARY, Ind. (AP) – Former Gary Mayor Rudy Clay, a tireless champion of his gritty, violent industrial city, died June 4, two years after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was 77.
Current Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson received a telephone call from Clay’s family announcing the death, mayoral spokeswoman Chelsea Whittington said.
The cause of death was not immediately confirmed, Whittington said, but Clay dropped a re-election bid two years ago because of the cancer. He said at the time that cancer treatments and a political campaign do not mix.
“He was an icon in the community whose political service spanned decades,” Freeman-Wilson said in a statement. “His heart for the citizens of Gary, Indiana will be remembered and cherished for years to come.”
A political stalwart in heavily Democratic Lake County, Clay became the county party chairman in 2005, and party leaders appointed him mayor in 2006. He was elected to a full term the following year.
He inherited a city riddled with abandoned buildings, a declining population and rampant violence.
The city recorded 71 homicides during 2007, and although the number fell to 51 the following year, it remained among the highest per-capita murder rates in the nation. Clay went through six police chiefs in a four-year period as the city also struggled with shrinking budgets, in part because of state property tax caps.
Clay backed a proposed Michael Jackson family-themed museum, hotel and cultural center as one way to rejuvenate the city, but it was never built.
In 1973, while Clay was serving as a state senator, Gov. Otis Bowen asked him to negotiate a surrender with rioting inmates at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City who took three guards hostage. The 35-hour siege ended after prisoners leading the uprising spoke with Clay.
After his sole Senate term, Clay won election to several Lake County offices. At a tribute party, The Times of Munster reported, he shook the hands of everyone who attended, saying, “I don’t think you can be successful unless you help people, and 40 years later thousands of people are saying they appreciate what I did.”
Indiana Democratic Chairman John Zody said those who heard Clay speak “knew him as a passionate advocate for his community and its residents, a man who could light up the room with his smile and a great story.”
“Mayor Clay fought for civil rights, equality, economic opportunity and social justice,” Zody said in a statement.
But also Clay had enemies. He survived an assassination attempt In 1986 after winning a race for Lake County recorder, according to The Times. A shotgun blast struck him in his arm and buttocks in front of his Gary home.
According to a campaign biography, Clay was born in Courtland, Ala., where his mother died shortly after delivery. Two aunts brought him to Gary. He attended Indiana University in Bloomington in 1956 before serving in the Army from 1958 to 1960.
Clay married Christine Swan in 1957 and the couple had one child, Rudy Clay Jr.