September 19, 2021

Jim Nowlan: Three not-quite-over-the-hill Illinois guys look back, ahead

I had lunch the other day with two friends from way back. As we sat down at a public golf course in Prophetstown in northwest Illinois, I realized that each of us has been president of a respected statewide organization over the many decades. There might be a column here, I thought.

Bud Thompson (his longtime neighbors would be surprised to learn his given name is Howard) was called back early from art school in Taos, New Mexico, as a teen in 1948 to take over the family business. Bud built it into five hog-buying stations and sold millions of pigs to packers across the Midwest over a successful career.

Bud was elected to his local school board in 1958 and a few years later as president of the Illinois Association of School Boards. In 1978, Gov. Jim Thompson appointed Bud to the Illinois State Board of Education, where he became vice chairman. Now 90 and sharp as a tack, Bud was reelected in 2020 to the Whiteside County Board, making him perhaps the oldest elected official in the state.

A craggy, tall drink of water, Jon Whitney went to college on a basketball scholarship and dreamed of the NBA until he realized his Converse sneakers were basically glued to the gym floor. Educated to teach English lit, Jon instead bought the Carroll County Review in 1967, which he and his wife have put out every week since. In 1985, Jon became president of the Illinois Press Association board, which then had 750 member newspapers. Jon and Bud have have headed just about every civic, service and local government group you can shake a stick at.

So, with two-and-a-half centuries of active life experience among us, I’d say we have the credentials to do some summing up.

I asked my buddies: What guidance do you have for your grandchildren, going forward? “Education, and more education,” declared Bud, which wasn’t surprising, “and do something you’re passionate about. Develop the capacity to learn new skills in a society that is changing at breakneck speed.” In other words, the best protections against the vagaries of life are marketable education and skills.

What are the biggest changes you have seen in society since World War II? “The American family has changed dramatically,” Jon said. Indeed, I chimed in, drawing on earlier reading about how single-parent households had increased from 7% of all households in 1968 to 25% one recent year.

“Interest in public service is down, as well, and ditto for membership in service clubs,” Jon added.

My contribution to the conversation: The pace of life since my childhood eight decades ago seems to have gone from slow and calm to frenetic and stressful. If so, I collar television, smartphones and social media for bringing the world and all its crises, catastrophes and conflicts into our noggins, relentlessly. It’s enough to keep us on edge, possibly create snappish behavior. After all, the mind can handle only so much at one time.

The big, indeed pleasant, surprise to me at lunch was the bullish attitude these two lifelong Prairie Staters have about the future of Illinois. I expected the same gloom and doom I hear elsewhere. What do these guys know that others don’t?

The two seemed to brush off our fiscal, corruption, high property taxes and other problems as addressable, at least for leaders who want to solve problems.

As for positives: “Land,” declared Jon, “and water,” blurted Bud. The latter was understandable, us being at a public golf course not much more than a stone’s throw from both the Mississippi and Rock rivers.

“And it’s not only the good earth we have,” said Jon, “but the availability of good land, right in the middle of the nation, for housing and production.”

In support, I recalled the cogent observation of entrepreneur Jim Schultz of Effingham, which I have used before: In each of the five Rs critical for economic development – rivers, runways, rails, roads, and routers – Illinois is among the top three states in the nation.

So, instead of an echo chamber of negatives, Bud and Jon lamented that we must do a better job of trumpeting our many pluses to the world.

We couldn’t over one lunch resolve all the issues we raised. Yet, I am encouraged these two friends of mine still have the fire in the belly to contribute and keep looking ahead.

• Jim Nowlan is a former state legislator and aide to three unindicted Illinois governors. A retired professor of American politics, he writes a newspaper column on Understanding Illinois.