GARY | Former Gary Mayor Rudolph "Rudy" Clay died Tuesday at age 77.
Chelsea Whittington, a spokeswoman for Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, said circumstances around Clay's death were unclear Tuesday.
Clay is being remembered as a formidable politician who won every crucial election he participated in, and served not only the city of Gary as mayor but also Lake County as state senator, a county recorder, councilman and a commissioner during four decades in public life.
Clay, who bowed out of politics two years ago because of prostate cancer, remained a vigorous politician, shaking the hands of all who attended his tribute party at the Genesis Convention Center in 2011.
Clay was one of the most recognizable figures in local politics, striding onto the scene with retro 1970s mutton chops, wide lapels, broad ties and monogrammed French cuffs with flashy cuff links.
He also spiced up the news with trademark catch phrases, as he did in 2008 when he described the job of cutting $13 million from Gary's budget while reducing layoffs. "No other city in the country our size could have done that, so we will have to keep wrestling with this octopus until it gets tired," he said.
That same year he told a delegation from China, "We built a great and beautiful relationship with people of Beijing when we were there. That relationship has turned the seed planted there into a butterfly. We want this butterfly to take off and fly and make Gary a beautiful city."
He told a crowd during a re-election speech, "Gary needs a mayor that's already been in the cockpit and flew the plane," he said. "You've got financial turbulence on one wing over here, lightning over there."
"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," Clay said at the time.
Clay, who looked and acted younger and was more active than his 77 years, recalled his first campaign in 1971 when he ran for a City Council at-large seat and lost.
In receiving word of Clay’s passing, Freeman-Wilson expressed her sympathy with the following statement, "On behalf of the city and citizens of Gary, I would like to express my condolences to Mrs. Christine Clay, Mr. Rudy Clay Jr. and the entire Clay family in the loss of Mayor Rudy Clay. He was an icon in the community whose political service spanned decades. His heart for the citizens of Gary, Ind., will be remembered and cherished for years to come."
County Commissioner Roosevelt Allen, D-Gary, seconded Freeman-Wilson's sentiments.
"He was an icon in our community and one of the most successful politicians in Lake County," said Allen, who replaced Clay on the Board of Commissioners.
U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, said Tuesday, "I lost a friend today. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and loved ones.”
Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody expressed sadness Tuesday over the loss "of such a charismatic, committed leader who tirelessly served the city of Gary, Lake County, our state and our party for so many years."
"Those who heard him 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," he said
Lake County Councilwoman Elsie Franklin said word of Clay’s death Tuesday was “devastating.”
“He was my trainer. He was my mentor. He was my friend,” Franklin said, recalling political guidance she said Clay provided her over the years. “He loved the city of Gary, Ind. He was a hard worker and so knowledgeable about the city and its people.”
Franklin said she admired many things about Clay, particularly his ability to maintain composure in the wake of criticism. "There were some people over the years who went after him in a derogatory way,” Franklin said. “He never allowed himself to get bitter or out of character."
Lake County Sheriff John Buncich, who said he has known Clay for 40 years, also expressed sadness Tuesday. “He really loved the city of Gary,” Buncich said. “He seemed like he knew everybody in the city, and he carried the torch for Gary.”
Clay graduated in 1953 from Theodore Roosevelt High School in midtown Gary. Roosevelt remains the first and only school built exclusively for the black community in the city of Gary. Next month, Clay would have celebrated his 60th class reunion with classmates.
Clay recalled in a 2008 interview that he learned the basic of public discourse while selling life insurance policies in Lake County.
Clay was disappointed when he ran for a City Council at-large seat and lost, but then experienced a happy reversal of fortunes the following year when he won election as state senator and served in the Senate from 1972 to 1976.
In 1973, when serving as state senator, Clay was called on by then-Gov. Otis Bowen to negotiate a surrender after rioting inmates at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City took three guards hostage. The 35-hour siege ended after prisoners leading the uprising spoke with Clay.
In 1986, he survived an assassination attempt after winning a race for Lake County recorder.
He was shot at three times in front of his Gary home by two men in a late-model Chrysler who had been waiting for him. One shouted, "Are you Clay?" When he said he was, the man opened fire with a shotgun, hitting Clay in the arm and buttocks.
Clay crawled under some bushes at a neighbor's home, and the men fled.
His political fortunes surged in 2005 when Democratic Party activists chose him as their county chairman and again in 2006 when former Mayor Scott King stepped down and named political ally Dozier Allen Jr. as acting mayor with the expectation Allen would win a party caucus to remain mayor.
However, Gary precinct committeemen chose Clay over Allen by a two-vote margin. Voters affirmed Clay as their choice in the 2007 election.
Clay sparred on national television during the 2008 Democratic primary with Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. over the release of Lake County ballot results for presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
McDermott called on Clay to release Lake's available vote totals. Clay responded, "There is no hanky-panky going on. They are counting (votes) as we speak."
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter recalled Clay never missed a political function until his health declined.
Clay expressed disappointment at the end of his mayoral term about the failure of his many efforts to revitalize Gary's retail downtown center, but remained upbeat to the end, telling 600 who feted him in 2011, "I think Gary's finest hour has yet to come."
Times staff writers Marc Chase and Carmen McCollum contributed to this report.