Former Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher died Friday. Provide image
Former Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher died Friday. Provide image
GARY — Former Mayor Richard Hatcher, one of the first black mayors of a major American city when he was elected in 1967 at age 34, and whose five terms made him Gary’s longest-tenured chief executive, died Friday.

He was 86.

Hatcher’s death was confirmed by his daughter, state Rep. Ragen Hatcher, D-Gary, who said her father died at 9:20 p.m. at Mercy Hospital in Chicago surrounded by family and loved ones.

In a statement, the Hatcher family said: “While deeply saddened by his passing, his family is very proud of the life he lived, including his many contributions to the cause of racial and economic justice and the more than 20 years of service he devoted to the city of Gary.”

“Mayor Hatcher will be mourned but remembered by the people of the city of Gary who were inspired by his leadership, his ability to bring about positive change and to never give up despite the challenges presented to him.”

Hatcher faced almost nothing but challenges as mayor between 1968 and 1987, as the steel industry contracted across the country and especially in Gary — a city founded by U.S. Steel in 1906 and named for the company's former president.

The loss of thousands of steel jobs, in conjunction with white flight from Gary following Hatcher’s election, shrunk the population of the city — once Indiana’s second-largest — by some 50,000 residents during Hatcher’s time as mayor.

But Hatcher, a Democrat, never stopped fighting for his city. He secured myriad federal grants aimed at boosting employment and improving housing in the Steel City.

He also trained a generation of local black leaders to follow in his footsteps by putting them in charge of city departments and bringing some 8,000 black officials and activists from across the country to the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary.

“I still marvel that he was able to do that,” said Lake County Councilman Charlie Brown, D-Gary, who worked on Hatcher’s city staff for 20 years and served Gary as a state representative for 36 years.

“For him to convince people just to open up their homes for strangers from around the country to spend those 3 or 4 days in their homes so that convention of African Americans could organize and become elected officials like him — to try to hold all that together was miraculous,” Brown said.

In 1984, Hatcher served as chairman of Chicagoan Jesse Jackson’s Democratic presidential campaign that, while unsuccessful, paved the way for future national black leaders, including another Chicago Democrat: President Barack Obama.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, a Republican, on Saturday declared Hatcher “a state and national trailblazer who committed his life to serving and helping his community.”

“Our sympathies go out to the Hatcher family and the long list of citizens he impacted and inspired. I ask Hoosiers around the state to join me in honoring this servant leader and his service to the proud city of Gary, Indiana.”

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said she was proud the city was able to honor Hatcher in October when it unveiled a life-size bronze statue of Hatcher in front of City Hall, with the former mayor in attendance.

“Our entire community mourns the loss of a great man and we will be forever touched by his selfless service to this city,” Freeman-Wilson said. “I am humbled to be a recipient of his wisdom and guidance and will always be grateful for his influence on my life.”

Hatcher was born July 10, 1933 in Michigan City. He earned his bachelor’s degree at Indiana University in Bloomington, a law degree at Valparaiso University, and came to Gary after being hired as a Lake County deputy prosecutor.

He is survived by his wife Ruthellyn, and three daughters, Ragen, Rachelle and Renee.

Funeral arrangements are pending.
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