If only there were more like Jesse White in Illinois government

Outgoing Secretary of State Jesse White talks about the job, his past as a paratrooper, baseball player and other highlights of his life. Brian Hill | The Daily Herald

To refer to Jesse White as Illinois’ longest-running secretary of state feels like a disservice to a man who has lived more lives and done more things than many of us could dream of.

His 24 years as secretary of state is but the latest chapter in a remarkable life – but certainly not the last.

White, 88, didn’t get elected to the role until he was 63 – a time when many of us start contemplating how we’ll spend our retirement years.

And his victory in that 1998 Democratic primary was no cake walk. He had to get past powerful Speaker Mike Madigan, who was backing another candidate, to do so.

But the darling of Illinois Democratic politics certainly won over voters with huge wins over the last quarter century.

Before serving in that role, he was the state’s recorder of deeds for two terms. Before that a state representative for eight – in the most racially and economically diverse district in Illinois.

At that time he was chairman of the House Committee on Human Services and an active member of committees on education, children and aging.

White is simply likable. He has always impressed us as being guileless and affable, collegial without being a pushover, and serious about getting drivers signed up as organ donors and serving the millions of people who deal with his office for business and driver licensing, among the myriad duties the secretary of state oversees.

He’s a clean campaigner. And in all things a gentleman.

If only more politicians could understand – as White does – that nice guys don’t always finish last.

He learned to appreciate that through his affiliation with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s.

The work he returns to now is that of head of the Jesse White Tumblers, an organization he started 63 years ago that seeks to give young people in the inner city a chance at something better. Some 18,500 kids have participated in his traveling troupe over the decades.

The longtime athlete and physical education teacher requires that his kids maintain decent grades and stay away from gangs, drugs, alcohol and smoking. His effect on the lives of those kids has been incalculable.

Who knows what might have happened to White’s baseball career with the Cubs organization had he not been drafted into the Army in 1957, days before spring training. He served as a paratrooper in the Army’s 101st Airborne.

White has inspired young people for generations.

We hope his legacy of compassionate leadership and his expansive sense of personal responsibility for the betterment of society lives on in Illinois government as he rededicates his life to his tumblers.

And that those tumblers continue to follow his lead.

Job well done, Mr. White.

They Daily Herald