top of page


Alan J. Dixon, hero of card-carrying card carriers

Illinois Times

August 1, 1980

A reflection on a certain style of Illinois politics as embodied by the late Alan J. Dixon, Illinois Treasurer, Secretary of State, and U.S. Senator. Some politicians seek to do good to make themselves popular. Dixon believed that making himself popular was his work. So vacuous was Al the Pal, so accustomed was he to making big deals of things that didn’t matter and small deals of things that did, that he survived forty-two years in politics without losing an election until his last one. He was succeeded by fellow Democrat Carol Moseley Braun, who was in most ways just as bad, but by then Illinois voters no longer knew the difference between a good senator and a Dixon.


For a journalist, living in a state capital such as Springfield is what living in Yakima must be like for a geologist these days. In each case, one is afforded an unparalleled close-up view of a rare natural phenomenon at work which is at once majestic and terrifying. State government and Mount St. Helens have much in common, especially during legislative sessions. Both erupt regularly in ways that tend to obscure the public's vision, the results of which cause the citizenry much cost and inconvenience. Both are mostly filled with hot gas, although the danger is real enough if they get out of control; both have been responsible (referring here to Springfield's capitol complex district) for widespread physical devastation around their bases. And both (if I may be permitted a small pun) are gradually making ashes of themselves.


My files bulge with data of the most seductive singularity about state government. Lawmakers vote for a pension raise bill they don't know is a pension raise bill and explain it later by saying that they often don't know what they're voting on—thus confirming public opinion. A floor in the brand new state computer center collapses under the weight of a paper cart, after which a Capital Development Board inspector arrives to explain to a TV audience that it happened because—you guessed it—the cart was too heavy. The Legislative Space Needs Commission discusses buying a four-story office building so they can move it across the street to the site of a church which the commission will tear down—which probably will come as a relief to the Lord, who would just as soon have nothing to do with the state either. And the Department of Agriculture spends more than $1,500 to build a basketball court at the state fairgrounds complete with the department's official seal painted at center court at a cost of $11 an hour, all (as department officials later implied) because Ag is such a pressure-cooker agency that its top people needed someplace to let loose.


I know exactly how they feel; I often feel the same way after reading about state government. Indeed, it would be easy to conclude from evidence of this sort that everyone in state government is, as the poet has it, "Rushing to and fro, busily employed in idleness." I have said that very thing more than once. But there are, laboring away in this lush vineyard, intelligent people who are dedicated and sensitive to public needs.


One of these worthies is Alan J. Dixon, your secretary of state. I know this because he told me. On July 17, Dixon sent me a press release in which he announced a new contract between the secretary of state's office and the Polaroid Corporation which, he assured me, "will result in an improved Illinois Driver's License and Identification Card, and will save the State of Illinois more than $1 million." The contract apparently will (if options are exercised) last fifty-eight months. During that time it will save state taxpayers $l.28 million or about 22 grand a month. At the moment, the state spends 43.75 cents for each license card; under the new contract it will spend only 34.60 cents.


"Now," I said to myself as I read the news, "we're getting somewhere.”


Not content with merely reducing the price of the Illinois license card, Dixon has undertaken to improve it as well. This is not big stuff as stuff goes these days. What with NBC in third place and McDonald's earnings down for the second year in a row, improving driver's license cards doesn't seem like much of an act of public service. But we must remember that Springfield is a small world in which small things loom large, not the least of which are reputations. Dixon told me, "We improved the license immeasurably with the addition of the photograph. Now we've improved it more."


For example, I had assumed that the driver's photo on each card made it impossible to pull stunts of the sort I used to pull as a boy, such as borrowing the license of an older but physically similar colleague and using it as identification to buy booze illegally. Apparently young people today are just as thirsty and no more law-abiding, and have taken to cutting out the license photos and switching them.


I applaud this sign of initiative in our otherwise lumpen youth, even as I join Dixon in bemoaning the result. But Dixon is a true son of St. Clair County, and is not content to merely bemoan what might be bettered. "We have overlayed [sic] my signature and the State of Illinois Seal on the driver's picture," he says. (The misspellings in the secretary's release are his responsibility, not mine. I attribute them to the fact that men of action seldom have time for the more erudite pursuits.) "This will make it very, very difficult for anyone to cut out and switch pictures." I'm sure it will, (though this apparent compulsion of state officials to slap official seals on everything is a subject that deserves careful study).


The new tamper-proofing will also make it very, very difficult for anyone not to be reminded of the name, "Alan J. Dixon." I don't know how the rest of you feel about having Alan J. Dixon's signature scrawled across your mug, but I regard it as an unwarranted case of the state sticking its business into my nose.


But I quibble. Making the license card tamper-proof is not the only way Dixon has improved this most vital of civilization's artifacts. Beginning September 1, the new card will be smaller, the size of a standard credit card. "I have heard complaints from Illinois motorists who couldn't fit the old license into their wallets and couldn't trim them because of the lamination," the secretary explained. This is one of those symptoms (drug addiction and divorce rates are others) by which we diagnose modern man's decline into decrepitude. It strikes me that this is not a problem that would have long stumped our pioneer forebears, for example, but perhaps I am being overly romantic about the latter’s virtues. I checked, and the dreaded lamination is vulnerable to trimming using any ordinary scissors. As for wallets, well, mine accommodates my old license card just fine. I always thought that one buys a wallet that fits one's cards and not the other way around, but then I'm old-fashioned. Indeed, I regard the new cards as part of the trend toward down-sizing evident everywhere in the economy. I wish to note only that a similar adjustment was made some half-century ago, when the federal government shrank the nation's paper money, possibly so it would fit more easily in people's wallets. And we all know what's happened to our money since.


Perhaps I'm being overly pessimistic. In any event, Dixon said, "I've tested the new size personally and I can assure the Illinois public the license will fit anything that restaurant, gasoline, bank, or store cards would go into." (Including debt?) That ought to quiet once and for all this talk of state officials not earning their money. Here is a leader.


Impressive as the new license card is, however, I find it hard to tip my hat to Mr. Dixon. The man is running for the United States Senate, after all. When we bargain with the Ruskies over a disarmament treaty we need a man who knows more about the subject than how to make the resulting document fit conveniently into an attaché case. Now if Dixon had stumbled onto a way to make license cards from Illinois coal, that would be something worth cheering. I wouldn't think such a trick would be too hard for him. For years he's been making big deals out of nothing. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page