CHICAGO - Longtime Illinois U.S. Rep. Phil Crane - an anti-tax crusader and ardent advocate of limited government even before those views became a hallmark of the GOP under President Ronald Reagan - has died of lung cancer at age 84.
The Chicago-born Crane died Saturday night at his daughter's Jefferson, Maryland, home surrounded by the children he once delighted in sending poems to, said Eric Elk, a congressional aide to Crane through much of the 1990s.
The one-time history professor-turned politician represented Chicago's far northwest suburbs for 35 years and was the longest-serving House Republican when he was defeated in 2004 by Democrat and then-political newcomer Melissa Bean.
Crane also made an unsuccessful run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980, losing out to the eventual winner, Ronald Reagan, who would go on to become the politician most closely associated with the modern conservative movement.
But Crane had touted what he saw as the virtue of smaller government going back to the 1960s, spelling out his vision of a stripped down, low-tax federal government in his 1976 book, "The Sum of Good Government."
"Phil was conservative before it was cool to be conservative," said Elk.
After a stint in the U.S. Army in the mid-1950s, Crane earned a PhD in history from Indiana University in 1963. He worked as an assistant history professor until 1967 at Bradley University, where also wrote on national politics.
Crane was first elected to Congress in 1969 when a young Illinois congressman - future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld - left to work for the Nixon administration.
His conservative credentials didn't preclude personal relationships with politicians on the other end of the spectrum, Elk said. He recalls Crane and U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, a Democrat, "cracking each other up with jokes" before sometimes contentious sessions of the House Ways and Means Committee began.
Crane also took time to write notes of encouragement to Democrat Dan Rostenkowski when the fellow U.S. congressman from Illinois ran into legal trouble.
"People would always say how Phil was such a conservative," said Elk, who is now chief of staff for Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk. "He was. But he was also a good person who cared about people."
Elk described Crane as erudite and well-read, recalling how he made a point of writing his children a full poem each year for their birthdays.
"He was most happy when he had those kids around him," Elk said.
Crane is survived by seven of those children. He was preceded in death by one daughter, who died at 31, and by his wife, Arlene.
Services are set for Thursday in Leesburg, Virginia.