SPRINGFIELD — Democratic nominee for Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias told the hundreds of party faithful gathered in the capital city earlier this week that he’s “not a big fan of asking for standing ovations.”
But Giannoulias felt it appropriate that the man he was introducing at the Illinois Democratic County Chairs Association’s annual brunch receive one.
“Let’s give a loud round of applause for Secretary Jesse White,” Giannoulias asked the assembled group, who happily obliged.
White, 88, when he reached the podium, thanked them for “the final ovation.”
Indeed, it’s been a capstone year for White, who leaves office in January following a lifetime of public service, including the past 24 years as Illinois’ secretary of state.
He’s even won over some Republican fans, including state Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, who is his party’s nominee to succeed White.
“The secretary of state has given me an ability to work with him across the aisle,” Brady said. “We’ve done that on a variety of fronts — distracted driving of teens, organ/tissue donation, whole body donation … We’ve worked very well together. Jesse White is an individual I greatly respect.”
In his last Illinois State Fair as an elected official, White served as grand marshal of the Twilight Parade, the annual event that kicks off the fair’s 11-day run. Earlier that day, he and Gov. J.B. Pritzker cut the ribbon at the fair’s main gate.
The following week, White was the recipient of many well-wishes and several standing ovations at the Democrats’ annual day at the fair.
“He signifies to me everything that’s right in public service,” said Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza. “Not in being a politician, but in truly being a public servant. This man, if you dive into his actual biography, has lived like seven or eight lifetimes — successful ones.”
White was born in downstate Alton but his family moved to Chicago when he was young. He attended what is now Lincoln Park High School, where he was an all-city basketball and baseball player.
He played both sports at Alabama State University in Montgomery, a setting in which he would cross paths with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was the pastor of the church he attended.
“After every basketball game where I was the top scorer at (five-foot-eight-and-a-half), he would give me $20,” White said in an interview with Lee Enterprises. “That was legal then but it’s not legal now.”
Following King’s lead, White participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
White said it was an experience and influence that still shapes him today.
Once he graduated, White served as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division for two years, a role that saw him jump out of planes.
He then played minor league baseball in the Chicago Cubs organization, batting .291 with six home runs and 229 stolen bases over seven seasons.
After retiring from baseball, White began a 33-year career as a teacher and administrator in Chicago Public Schools.
Amid all this, White founded the Jesse White Tumbling Team in 1959. The team serves as a positive alternative for children living in public housing in the Chicago area. More than 18,000 children have participated in the program since its inception.
For everything else he did in his life, White will “ride off into the sunset” as one of the most successful politicians in Illinois history.
White said it was longtime Cook County Board President George Dunne who first suggested he consider running for office. He decided to give it a go after concluding that “it was another opportunity to help people.”
He ran for and was elected to the Illinois House, where he served from 1975 to 1993. He was later elected Cook County Recorder of Deeds in 1992, and, finally, began serving as secretary of state in 1999.
But when he first ran for secretary of state, he said, there were some doubters.
“I was told by the Democratic Party when I asked to be considered for the position of secretary of state to not waste my time, tell my friends and neighbors not to waste their time and money because Tim McCarthy was going to be the next secretary of state for the state of Illinois,” White said. “I said ‘watch me.’ And so I took it upon myself to travel all over the state of Illinois after getting my organization in place and I averaged 14 to 16 events every day.
“I’m a former military person, so I don’t take defeat lightly,” he continued. “I’m a former professional baseball player too and I played basketball and baseball in high school and college and received all-honors. And so I’m not the kind of person who will take my ball and bat and go home.”
White would win that primary against McCarthy, the ex-Secret Service agent best known for defending President Ronald Reagan during the assassination attempt against Reagan in 1981.
White later won the general election and would be reelected an unprecedented five times, never receiving less than 63% in any of his reelection campaigns.
He was so popular that he carried every county in the state in 2002. And even in increasingly-polarized times, White has continued to win downstate counties that elude most Democrats.
“Well, I’m a personal guy,” White said. “My telephone number’s in the telephone book. My cell phone number, I pass out to people. They call me seeking the various services with the secretary of state’s office … I get the whole nine yards.”
“And I’m a follow-through fellow,” he continued. “If someone says that they need help, I’m going to see it from its beginning to its conclusion.”
While in office, White oversaw the implementation of the graduated driver’s license program, which among other requirements increased the amount of practice time needed to obtain a license and restricted night time driving for teenagers. He credited it with the significant drop teen driving deaths.
White said he was also proud of the expansion of the Illinois organ/tissue donor registry, which has more than 7 million participants. A 2018 law backed by White’s office allows 16- and 17-year-olds to give consent to donate their organs and tissue at the time of death.
He said he was also proud to help clean up an office under “a cloud of controversy” under predecessor George Ryan, who ultimately went to jail on federal corruption charges.
And, of course, he is proud of lower wait times.
“No longer do people have to bring the duffel bag, sleeping bag or their lunch pail,” White said of a trip to the DMV.
Pritzker said that White’s legacy is “incomparable.”
“The incomparable legacy of Jesse White is one built not only on his tenure as Secretary of State, but also as one of our greatest statesmen, a kind and decent man, a paratrooper, a Chicago Cub, a teacher, a mentor and a public servant. Jesse dedicated his life to serving his community and our state, and his leadership in government will be deeply missed,” Pritzker said.
Mendoza, elected comptroller in 2016, said White pulled her aside a few years ago and gave her some valuable advice.
“He said ‘kid, let me give you some advice. You know how you become the No. 1 vote-getter in Illinois? You show up, you go to the places where your staff even tells you don’t bother because there’s only a few people that might show up, but you show up. And those two or three people that show up are gonna go tell 20 people that you were there because you care about them.’ I try to live up to that,” Mendoza said.
Mendoza was the second-highest vote-getter on the ticket in 2018 behind White. She pointed out that they were the only two statewide Democrats to carry LaSalle County, which she credited to the time she spent there based on White’s advice.
Riding into the sunset
White will not be on the ballot this November. However, that does not mean he’s leaving the political scene. White said he plans to criss-cross the state to help elect and support Democrats.
And, of course, he still plans be involved with the tumblers.
“I want you to know that as I ride off into the sunset, I will continue to do what I’ve been doing for 63 years — and that is I’ve been the coach and founder of the Jesse White Tumbling team,” White told the brunch crowd earlier this week.
Sen. Dick Durbin on Wednesday said that White has “always been a true friend.”
“You can count on him to be loyal to you and to stick with you through good times and bad,” Durbin said. “He’s just a wonderful individual. And the work that he’s done with the tumblers has changed thousands of lives — just the kind of person he is. He deserves to be the biggest vote getter in the state of Illinois.”
Throughout his life, a common line has been service. White said this was a key to his success.
“I have a statement I use a lot, that is do something good for someone every day,” White said. “That has been my hallmark, that has been my model and I live by it every day.”
Contact Brenden Moore at 217-421-7984. Follow him on Twitter: @brendenmoore13
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