Blagojevich family draws closer together

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich stands beside his family -- L to R -- wife Patti, and daughters Annie and Amy, at PAWS Chicago, where they adopted a new dog named Luella (held by Annie) on Friday, December 9, 2011. (Chris Sweda/ Chicago Tribune)

There's a friend who'd like to give him one last hug. Neighbors dashing off goodbye notes. And a curious city that wants to know about how the suddenly private Rod Blagojevich is coping with his final days of freedom.

But the man who once welcomed the harsh light of TV cameras has spent his remaining days quietly maintaining his routine and drawing his wife and two daughters close.

Those close to him say the gravity of the situation has hit Blagojevich. He has struggled to sleep of late. Yet the family is trying to remember that while there is a potential to think only in extremes at a time like this — almost like this is a death — it will survive.

"They have that support to get through this time together," said a family friend who spoke on condition of anonymity. "…The entire focus is: How do we get the girls to process and cope and be healthy."

In the weeks since he was sentenced in December to 14 years in prison, the former governor has kept a low profile, rebuffing requests for interviews. Last week he offered just a brief remark to reporters who started staking out his home before his scheduled surrender Thursday to a federal prison in Colorado.

Blagojevich plans to address the media outside his Ravenswood Manor home Wednesday, but a spokesman said he won't take any questions.

In recent weeks he has been spotted jogging and shuttling daughters Amy, 15, and Annie, 8, to school. He was seen at a nearby park, at ease as one daughter played.  He offered a confident politician's "good morning" to a passer-by last week — just as he had thousands of times before.

In four short days, however, the disgraced former public servant who once aspired to be president will be Inmate 40892-424 inside a federal prison, 15 miles southwest of Denver off U.S. Highway 285 and South Kipling Street, a stretch of road named for the writer often quoted by Blagojevich.

Aware of that fast-approaching date, friends have reached out by phone to say goodbye to Blagojevich but have not heard back from him, according to the friend who asked not to be named.

Neighbors say they see activity at the house — people coming and going. Those close to him say the Blagojeviches have not done anything extraordinary or unusual to enjoy their final days together — no trips or special events. They are just spending time together.

In a recent interview with talk-show host Rosie O'Donnell, Blagojevich's wife, Patti, said she had seen a child psychologist but still remains fearful that her daughters would be "totally screwed up from this."

"Come March 15, he is going to be gone," she said. "We're going to have the reality, this unbelievable reality of having to go visit my husband in a federal penitentiary."

Patti Blagojevich also said her husband didn't really want to discuss prison, saying he "doesn't even want to go there mentally."

Those close to the family said his reaction to the pending imprisonment has been shifting, but he continues to cling to a belief that a higher court will rule in his favor on appeal. At his most optimistic, he thinks he might be home in two years with a reversal of his corruption conviction; at other times, he hopes his prison term might be shortened.

For neighbors, the drama has played out close at hand. At first, they embraced the excitement of a prominent elected official living in their midst, but then looked on with increasing chagrin as the corner of Sunnyside Avenue and Richmond Street increasingly became a sideshow after Blagojevich's early morning arrest in late 2008 and his long legal travail.

Ultimately, it has left many neighbors exhausted, frustrated and even bitter in some cases by the media hordes and onlookers and those who mugged for the cameras pretending to be residents of Ravenswood Manor.

But even as the media circus was gearing up for its final week, there were still quiet, simple neighborly gestures. And sympathy for Blagojevich's family, which has put the home up for sale.

"We're well past the crimes and the frivolity and the ostentation ...," said the Rev. Martin Deppe, who lives next door to the Blagojeviches. "We are past all of that, and we are in the reality of the family separation. We're parents and grandparents. These girls that we have watched grow up are just lovely girls and persons. And we see what is facing them, and it's very distressing, apart from what their parents did or didn't do."

Tom Leo, a longtime resident on the block, called on the former governor a few weeks ago.

"Somebody moves away, we try to say goodbye," he said.

Blagojevich was not home, but Leo left a message with Patti Blagojevich.

A short time later, Blagojevich stopped by Leo's home, just back from jogging. Leo said he seemed to be trying to keep a brave front.

"We just said goodbye and I wished him luck and I wished the family well," Leo said in a phone interview. "I think it's going to be very hard on all of them."

asweeney@tribune.com