Dan Walker recalls highs and lows in new book
BERNARD SCHOENBURG COLUMN
(EMBARGOED FOR USE UNTIL SUNDAY, JUNE 10, 2007)
Feisty Walker offers fascinating look at his highs, lows
If any political officeholders need a good reason to toe the legal line as they go about their jobs, a reading of former Gov. DAN WALKER’s new autobiography will provide plenty to think about.
Most chapters of “The Maverick and the Machine: Governor Dan Walker Tells His Story” (Southern Illinois University Press, $29.95) begin with recollections of the now-84-year-old Walker’s 18 months in federal prison. The prison time stemmed from financial problems he encountered after his single four-year term in office that ended in 1977. But the “club fed” view of federal pens quickly evaporates when reading of degrading strip searches, a sexual attack by other inmates on a Walker cellmate as a guard walks by and does nothing, threats he received from some black inmates (which he contrasts with his past marching in Chicago for open housing with Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. and losing friends in Deerfield for backing integrated housing), and a warden who Walker thinks “especially relishes humiliating men of former high position.”
That warden at the prison at Duluth, Minn., assigned Walker to scrub toilets in addition to picking up cigarette butts in the freezing yard with a 3-foot long stick emblazoned with the burned-in words “governor’s stick” and with a protruding nail to be used to stab the garbage.
“I’m going to tell all visitors, ‘Look at that guy; he’s a former governor,’” the warden tells him.
Originally sentenced to what he said was a shockingly long seven years, he only ended up serving 18 months because the judge reduced his sentence as it was being served. But his horrible time inside had him often consider climbing the prison water tower ladder and jumping off. He found a sense of solace by closing his eyes and seeing the face of Jesus. That ability finally faded, but by then, he said, he achieved “a peace that has never left me.”
The book, more than 300 pages long, is far more than a prison memoir. In fact, it’s a fascinating look from the inside at the life of a person who followed his father’s footsteps to be a Navy man, discovered an affinity for courtroom law, rose the corporate ladder, was drawn to politics, saw the excesses of the old Chicago Democratic organization, actually defeated the RICHARD J. DALEY -run machine by winning the governorship in 1972, and was then beaten by that machine and other enemies he made along the way when he sought re-election in 1976.
There is the feistiness that marked Walker’s years as governor, as he also uses the book to talk of his crusade to clean up Illinois government and how the sleaze continues. However, it is troubling that for some parts of the story I know well, I found several mistakes of fact. And those make you wonder about the accuracy of some of the other broadsides he levels against both Republicans and Democrats he sees as part of the past and continuing problem of corruption in the state.
For example, the book not only calls the current Illinois governor “Ron” Blagojevich, but also says Blagojevich fund-raiser TONY REZKO (which is spelled Rezco just a few lines after a correct version) has pleaded guilty to corruption charges - which he has not. He said U.S. Sen. DICK DURBIN is in his third Senate term, when he is in his second. Walker also calls BILL CELLINI chairman of the Sangamon County Republicans, which he never has been - he’s the long-time treasurer. The introduction says GEORGE RYAN was convicted on 16 corruption counts; the conclusion states it was 28. In reality it was 18.
An expected second printing should provide a chance to fix such mistakes.
Despite the problems, the book is a compelling read. I particularly enjoyed the extensive discussion of how Walker and his team, including close adviser and top aide VICTOR de GRAZIA, planned and carried out a risky but ultimately brilliant campaign strategy - to have Walker walk a zig-zag path through the state, 1,197 miles in all, often with two of his sons.
“If they (the media) dismiss it as a stunt or gimmick, he’ll walk to nowhere,” he recalls campaign aide NORTY KAY saying.
But despite sore feet and disappointingly small reaction at some points, momentum grew. Drivers started honking and waving. Walker became less wooden and got a great understanding of downstate as he had long talks with people in whose homes he stayed.
“Over and over, people told me about feeling forsaken by state government,” he wrote. “It took me a while to appreciate the depth of their ‘left out’ feeling.”
Sometimes reporters would join him - including TAYLOR PENSONEAU, then of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who walked with him for 19 miles over most of two days, and would later co-write a 1993 biography of Walker.
And Walker met people who would later work for him or get appointments from him in Springfield - including SID and NATALIE MARDER - then of Peru, and DON JOHNSON, who as a downstate labor leader, Walker thought, wouldn’t be beholden to then-Mayor Daley. Johnson became head of the state labor department and later the state AFL-CIO.
Walker’s clashes with the first Mayor Daley are a big part of the story. Walker tells of his early work with Chicago Democrats, recoiling when he realized that in helping a political colleague he had aided “winos,” who were paid a bottle of cheap wine each to cast votes for dead people. He recounts his heading of a commission that labeled disturbances at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago a “police riot,” something that always rankled Daley. And he laments Democrats he thought were independent who stayed allied with the mayor anyway. Walker defeated one of them in his 1972 Democratic gubernatorial primary - PAUL SIMON. And he denied NEIL HARTIGAN - not part of his team but elected to be his lieutenant governor -the Statehouse office Hartigan wanted in part because Walker considered him “Daley’s puppet.”
There is also the family history - first wife ROBERTA, who liked living in Deerfield; second wife, also named ROBERTA (he calls her R2), who brought him into jet-set spending and divorced him while he was in prison; and third wife LILY, with whom he now shares his life at residences in California and Mexico.
It was after he was out of office that Walker got into financial trouble. Problems hit what had been a successful quick oil-change business, and he ended up selling the chain at a “fire-sale” price. His savings and loan went insolvent - though he stressed no depositors lost money. But among legal problems, he had borrowed money from someone who had an outstanding loan from the institution, which was not permitted. He thought he would get probation and pleaded guilty to charges of bank fraud, perjury and misapplication of bank funds, but got the seven years.
Walker’s book paints a vivid picture, from the author’s perspective, of the state, the part of its history in which he was a chief player, and his personal rise, fall and renewal after prison.
Walker proudly recounted accomplishments including the state’s first campaign contribution disclosure law, a strengthened Environmental Protection Agency, creating of the Regional Transportation Authority and directing of lottery proceeds to education. And he admits it was a contentious time.
“Some commentators have labeled me a ‘confrontationist’ governor who ‘created too much turmoil,’ he wrote. “However, it is puzzling to me how a corrupt, entrenched, bipartisan political system could be challenged without confrontation and turmoil.”
Walker will be in Springfield Monday for a morning Statehouse news conference and an afternoon appearance at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, where he’ll pass to the state some campaign memorabilia. He’ll also have a book signing from 9-10 a.m. Tuesday at Barnes & Noble Booksellers, 3111 S. Veterans Parkway.
Condolences to state Rep. WYVETTER YOUNGE, D-East St. Louis, on the death of her husband RICHARD, a retired attorney, on Wednesday at a nursing home in Stow, Ohio. He was 82.
Richard Younge, who succumbed to complications from a series of strokes, had traveled to Ohio just last week to be near daughter MARGARET HEWITT.
Hewitt said that Richard Younge was a general legal practitioner, but started out practicing civil rights law. She said he filed many of the lawsuits that desegregated schools, theaters and public accommodations in East St. Louis.
“He was a pioneer,” Margaret Hewitt said. “He was a person that didn’t believe the human potential had limits.”
He was also married to Rep. Younge for 50 years. They had five children, one deceased, and seven grandchildren.
A service is planned for Friday at St. Luke’s A.M.E. Church in East St. Louis.
Condolences also to STEVE BROWN, press secretary to House Speaker MICHAEL MADIGAN, D-Chicago, on the June 5 death of his mother, AUDREY BROWN, at age 83. A victim of Alzheimer’s disease, she spent the last 81/2 years of her life in a St. Louis nursing home.
“She was a wonderful mom and very active in the Catholic parishes she lived in,” Brown said.
“If they could find a cure for that disease, it would probably save a lot of heartache for folks,” he added.
He asked that in lieu of flowers, people donate to whatever Alzheimer’s support group they are familiar with.