Good Neighbors

Life with Illinois governors around the corner

Illinois Times

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.)

 

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, do 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. 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. ●

SITES

OF

INTEREST

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.

Chicagology

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. 

BOOKS

 OF INTEREST

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. 

Contact James Krohe Jr. at CornLatitudes@outlook.com

All material Copyright © by James Krohe Jr. unless otherwise indicated