When Chris Drumm became 63rd Ward Democratic leader in the late 1980s, he asked predecessor Scott Becker for some advice.
Drumm was told, “Sit next to Stack and do whatever he does.”
“It was good advice,” Drumm recalled.
Drumm remembers Mike Stack Jr., the longtime Democratic leader of the 58th Ward, as a funny and smart man who was a loyal alumnus of St. Joseph’s College and had a sharp political mind.
Stack died July 13 of congestive heart failure at Temple University Hospital. He was 84 and lived on Southampton Road in Somerton.
“A great man. Period. He will be dearly missed,” said Drumm, who relinquished his ward post in 2007.
Stack is survived by his wife of 53 years, Felice, a Municipal Court senior judge and former school board member; children Mary Theresa Nardi, Michael III, Patrick, Eileen Mirsch and Carol Poggio.; and grandchildren Tom, Joe, Meg, Justin, Katie, Pat, Caroline, Michael, Vincent, Victoria and Gianna.
Stack was born in West Philadelphia, He attended Transfiguration of Our Lord Grammar School, West Catholic High School, St. Joseph’s College and the University of Pennsylvania Law School (Class of 1954). He spent two years in the U.S. Army. His father was a two-term congressman in the 1930s.
Over the years, he practiced law, worked as a deputy state attorney general, was a trustee on the Board of Prisons, served as general counsel to the Philadelphia Parking Authority and Philadelphia Hospital Authority and taught an American government class at St. Joseph’s University night school.
While living in Washington, D.C., he worked for President Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty program and taught at Georgetown Law School, where one of his students was future congressman and Philadelphia Mayor Bill Green.
In 1966, he worked for the campaign of Milton Shapp, who lost the race for Pennsylvania governor. In ’67, he joined the re-election campaign of Mayor James Tate, who edged a young district attorney, Arlen Specter.
In 1970, he became leader of the 58th Ward Democrats. In the rough-and-tumble world of Philadelphia ward politics, he borrowed a phrase from South Philadelphia congressman Bill Barrett: “Today’s enemy is tomorrow’s friend.”
In 1973, Stack made his one and only run for public office. Mayor Frank Rizzo backed him in the primary for district attorney, but he lost to Emmett Fitzpatrick.
Among the politicos visiting Stack’s house were former Mayors Rizzo and Wilson Goode, former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, former U.S. Rep. Bob Borski and a son of former President Jimmy Carter.
Stack resigned as ward leader in 2007, assuming the title of ward leader emeritus, and was replaced by his son Mike, a three-term state senator. The ward included divisions in Bustleton and Somerton.
His passions included portrait painting and writing. He authored six non-fiction books on a variety of topics.
The book Close Personal Friends of the Mayor mirrors the ’67 Tate/Specter race. His writing style, some said, resembled that of “City Hall Sam,” who writes a weekly column for the Philadelphia Public Record.
A seventh book, Ward Leader, which takes a look at the wacky world of Philadelphia ward politics, is almost ready to be published.
Several years ago, a key ward function — collecting nominating petitions for candidates — led to Stack and a couple of committee people being indicted in an election fraud case. They were charged with forging petitions for a City Council race, but a judge ruled that the prosecution did not bring the case to trial in a timely manner. Appeals courts upheld the decision.
Stack continued to practice law late in life but was beset with problems associated with diabetes and his heart.
His favorite activities included traveling, playing movie trivia and organizing a giant treasure hunt every Easter weekend at his home in Stone Harbor, N.J.
“He loved when everybody was down the shore together,” his son Mike said. “He was always giving the grandkids painting lessons.”
The younger Stack described his father as his mentor and a wise “artisan of politics” who deftly navigated the feuds and turf wars.
Whenever someone approached him with a problem, he didn’t even take time to respond verbally.
“He’d start dialing phone numbers,” his son said, and usually the problem would be solved.
The senator, who is a lawyer, tried a couple of cases with his father.
“He was second to none in being able to solve legal problems and communicate with a jury,” he said.
Mike McAleer, who has been Democratic leader of Ward 66-B for 35 years, counted Stack as a good friend with a great sense of humor.
“When I was in a political jam, I’d call him. He gave me a lot of advice in my career,” said McAleer, who works in Sen. Stack’s Parkwood office. “He was a pretty straight shooter and a helluva family man. He was usually right on the money with politics.”
Frank Conaway served 25-plus years as Democratic leader of the 57th Ward. He recalls Stack as an astute political observer who dispensed good advice, like a doctor with a good bedside manner.
“I never heard him raise his voice in a political setting,” he said. “He appeared to be very calm all the time. There’s not too many of them around, but he was a gentleman.”
Like Stack, Mike Meehan is a lawyer and a longtime Somerton resident. Unlike Stack, Meehan is a staunch Republican whose family has run the local party for decades.
Politics, though, did not divide them.
“It’s a very sad day for Somerton. He was a fixture there,” Meehan said. “He was a friend and will be sorely missed.”
Former state Rep. George Kenney, another longtime Somerton resident, knew the longtime ward leader as “Mr. Stack” for four decades. He described him as a great neighbor, storyteller and parishioner at St. Christopher Church.
Kenney, a Republican, often talked politics with Stack, whose stories included a 1974 congressional primary that saw the ward leader help U.S. Rep. Josh Eilberg crush a young Somerton man named Chris Matthews, who now hosts Hardball on MSNBC.
“We had a lot of laughs together,” said Kenney, now director of commonwealth and federal affairs for Temple University.
Some of those laughs came at suggestions that Stack would put up weak candidates against Kenney. Many people in both parties insisted the two had a longstanding secret deal.
“I never thought so, and neither did he, but everybody else thought so,” Kenney said. “I never discouraged people from thinking that, and neither did he.”
Viewings for Stack were held Sunday night and Monday morning before a funeral Mass at St. Christopher.
In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to Sponsor a Needy Student Fund, c/o St. Christopher Church, 13301 Proctor Road, Philadelphia, PA 19116 or Cranaleith Spiritual Center, 13475 Proctor Road, Philadelphia, PA 19116. ••
Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or firstname.lastname@example.org