John J. Houlihan, a war hero who became the first director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, died on July 24 of lung cancer. He was 80.
Upon graduating from high school in 1941, Houlihan enlisted in the Marines. He fought in the Battle of Midway and Guadalcanal, and was wounded by artillery fire in Bougainville. A big shell exploded, killing and injuring a dozen Marines; Houlihan’s left leg was amputated in the blast. His service during World War II earned him a Purple Heart, the Marine Corps Medal and the Asian Pacific Medal with three Bronze Stars.
When he returned to the states, Houlihan earned a degree in business and accounting at DePaul University, and took a job with the Cook County clerk’s office.
In 1965, he was elected to the state legislature as a Democrat. He served four terms, ran two failed campaigns for Congress, then became the first appointed director of veterans affairs in Illinois.
He also spent several years with the Veterans Administration in Washington, D.C., where he worked directly for President Ronald Reagan as the V.A. representative who handled benefits supplied to the Marines injured in Beirut. Before he became too ill to work, Houlihan supervised the Cook County Veteran’s Assistance Commission.