Corn Kings and One-Horse Thieves
Odds & ends
Illinois past and present, as seen by James Krohe Jr.
The Corn Latitudes
Life with Illinois governors around the corner
July 11, 1980
It happened that we lived around the corner from the Illinois Executive Mansion for more than eleven years. That meant that several Illinois governors lived around the corner from us. They never wrote about it. I did.
Ordinarily I don't like to complain about the neighbors; I mean, look at the trouble it's caused on the West Bank. But I try to be friendly and I expect my neighbors to do the same. And in the four and a half years since he moved into the mansion up the street, Gov. Jim Thompson hasn't so much as asked us over for coffee. We're beginning to suspect that the Thompsons are stuck up.
We live practically next door, you see, but I've seen the governor in person only four times—once when he was walking into an antique shop across the street, once when his driver almost hit me while I was jogging, once when he was being interviewed by TV reporters on the sidewalk, and once the other day when he was sitting on the east terrace of the mansion eating breakfast. I thought briefly of introducing myself and inviting him down to Thrifty's to have breakfast with the rest of us big wheels. The regulars there include an ex-police chief, an ex-architect, an ex-judge and an ex-teacher; an ex-vice presidential hopeful would fit right in. But the governor would probably jump the line and the Thrifty crowd looks unkindly at people who throw their weight around.
We have lived in the mansion neighborhood for more than ten years. In that time we've seen governors come and we've seen governors go, and I don't want anyone to think that they've all been ace guys. We used to see Walker a lot, because he used to walk to work most mornings at about the same time I did. Ogilvie never got out of his car—it was more like a tank actually—and more than once I suspected that he had his meals served in it, maybe on a window tray like they use at Steak 'n' Shake. Kerner had moved out by the time we moved in, which was too bad. Several years earlier when I was playing basketball at the YMCA down the street, the gov showed up in trunks and sweatshirt. He wasn't very fast on his feet, as Thompson was to prove in court some years later [when he prosecuted Kerner for tax fraud]. But Kerner had a two-handed set shot good enough to shoot out the eyes of a state senator at thirty feet. I bet Kerner would have invited us over, maybe for home movies or something.
Even if Dick and Dan weren't exactly bonhomies among the neighborhood—they never showed up at Christmas parties at the Hickox for example—they at least kept to themselves and minded their own business. You never know about people, though. John Camper's account in Chicagoan magazine a few years ago of a poker game at the mansion at which Walker brandished a revolver was a shocker. If we'd known that kind of thing was going on over there, Mr. Walker wouldn't have found us so hospitable. I don't mean the gun. I mean the poker.
Thompson on the other hand has a lot of friends, and in any given week you're likely to find quite a few of them hanging around the mansion. To be fair, not all the hordes that file in and out of the mansion are the gov's pals. A few are tourists. Most of the rest are photographers from the State Journal-Register en route to working on that paper's weekly shot of the gov putting a swing set together—he's better at budgets—or bouncing little Samantha Jayne on his knee while he puffs charmingly away on his exercycle.
You can always tell when the governor throws a party, because Fourth Street fills up with Cadillacs and because the sidewalk is littered the next morning with empty plastic cocktail glasses. In fact, we can usually tell who the governor has invited by the cars parked on the streets around the mansion. Businessmen who show up for Republican Party functions drive big cars that tend to be painted in pastel colors. So, strangely enough, are their wives, so often that I have begun to wonder whether wives dress to match their cars. Legislators' cars are recognizable because they are usually parked in no- parking zones with one wheel on the curb. Reporters' cars are usually rusting Toyotas of the sort which prompt some of our older neighbors to remark that they don't know what the neighborhood is coming to.
Once in while the governor's parties get a little wild. I remember one last year, held to honor participants in the LPGA's Rail golf tournament. And last Tuesday night he threw an end-of-the-session bash for legislators, reporters, and aides at the adjournment of the General Assembly. It started at about 1:30 in the morning—a time of day, I assure you, when the decent people of my neighborhood are tucked quietly in their beds—and ended at 6 a.m. Something like 600 people showed up, and the governor's aides had to scour the city's all-night groceries for more eggs to feed them all. I'm only glad they didn't come knocking at my door asking to borrow a couple of eggs. I would have given them eggs—sunnyside up, right between the eyes.
Asking to borrow eggs would have required some cheek anyway. Like I said, in all these years we've never even been asked to drop by the mansion for a get-acquainted cup of coffee. Part of our displeasure at these snubs can be traced, I admit, to simple envy. Most folks around here live in efficiency apartments, and menus tend toward TV dinners. Not so at the gov's place. When Chuck Flynn, the editor of the Champaign News-Gazette, visited the mansion in 1978, he was served a five-course dinner consisting of cream of mushroom soup, avocado stuffed with crabmeat, filet of beef and mushrooms, asparagus with chantilly sauce, a twice-baked potato, fresh fruit, and a St. Hallvard's ice—the last being a Norwegian liqueur which, Mr. Flynn noted at the time, "is quite limited in supply." Swanson doesn't package anything like that.
We can't chat over the back fence like normal folks either, because the governor's back fence is fifteen feet high and made of solid brick. The front yard is surrounded by a fence too, a cast iron one. Some of our neighbors were a little miffed when they put that fence in, thinking it a slap in the face of the neighborhood. They were delighted in 1978 when some drunk broke into the grounds and crawled through a window before he was discovered by security men sitting in the gov's office gradually emptying a bottle of Scotch. The gov wasn't home but it shook everybody up, and not long after that we all watched them installing this electronic eye surveillance system on the mansion grounds. We assume it was put in because of the break-in; it sticks out like a sore thumb, and only a drunk could fail to see it and take steps to avoid it.
I would have thought that the governor, coming from Chicago, wouldn't be fazed by something as innocuous as a drunk showing up in his house. There is something inconsistent about a man who will install several thousand dollars worth of security equipment to keep drunks from coming through the windows while he is inviting county chairmen, City Day School auction-goers, and, yes, editors to come in through the front door. Besides, that kind of thing happens all the time around here, and you don't see us getting all nervous. In ten years we've harbored jail escapees, tipsy Shriners practicing trombones at the motel across the street, and enterprising teenagers who yank parking meters out of the ground like they were pulling up sweet potatoes.
But these are mostly just misdemeanors. We have had many fewer murders here than they've had in Westchester, for example, and none of my friends has been convicted of income tax evasion. The neighborhood hasn't been really rowdy for twenty years, since the days when visiting legislators renting apartments on the street used to entertain the neighbors by falling down the stairs at parties. One lousy drunk, though, and the gov turns his place into Camp David. What does he think that does to property values around here?
However, the biggest problem we've had with the Thompsons is their dogs. The Thompsons own at least three of them, and two of them—the biggest two—bark. A lot. And loud. At anything that moves. I mean, they bark when a cold front moves through the neighborhood. (They share one trait with their master; Guv, Sam, and the governor are all opportunists who never waste a chance to make some noise.) In 1978 I voted for Thompson only because he was running against a schoolteacher. But for a moment there in the booth I considered voting for Bakalis anyway, on the theory that if I voted Thompson out of office I would also be voting those damn dogs out of the mansion. Then I remembered that Bakalis has a dog too. In 1982, I'm voting for the candidate who keeps goldfish for pets, and I don't care what kind of bozo he is.
Still, the Thompsons are a part of the neighborhood whether we—or they—like it or not. If they don't want to be friendly, that's okay. We're still here, and if they want to make up all they have to do is leave a note on the bulletin board over in the laundry room. We have some recipes I'm sure they would love. ●
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A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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