clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

‘Big Jim’ Thompson ‘was a tall man, but he never looked down on anyone,’ George Ryan recalls

Former Gov. George Ryan remembers his friend — former Gov. James Thompson, who died Friday — for his kindness, as well his work for Illinois, calling Thompson a “giant the state won’t forget.”

Former Gov. James Thompson behind the wheel of a Chrysler convertible in 1985.
Then-Gov. James R. Thompson behind the wheel of a Chrysler convertible in this 1985 file photo with G. Glenn Gardner, left, and Yoichi Nakane, after a news conference in Chicago.
AP Photos

Former Gov. James R. Thompson was a man of many parts.

All of them moving at the speed of light.

On Friday evening, after years of public service, private acclaim and a retirement spent rejoicing in life with his only grandchild, Persephone, “Big Jim” died at the age of 84.

“I got a call his heart had simply stopped,” said his wife, Jayne Thompson. “It was so unexpected. He didn’t have a heart problem we knew about. We thought he had turned the corner. He seemed to be doing so well.”

Restricted to a wheelchair and walker due to back problems, Thompson died at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab after weeks recovering at Northwestern Memorial Hospital following an earlier fall at his daughter’s house.

“We quarantined for three months [during COVID-19] and wore masks,” said Jayne Thompson, who claimed subsequent visitation restrictions limited the family primarily to video chats. “It never replaces personal visits.”

“Taking our granddaughter there would have been asking for trouble.”

In his public life, Thompson had it all. His resume includes serving as U.S. attorney for Illinois’ northern district, governor of Illinois and chairman of the prestigious Winston & Strawn law firm. An iconic Loop building, the James R. Thompson Center, still bears his name.

“He was advised early in his law career to become a prosecutor first so he’d know how to effectively defend people,” Jayne Thompson said.

In his private life, Thompson had it all, too. He married the love of his life and got his greatest gift, his granddaughter, by his adored only child, Samantha.

In his personal world, Thompson had a reputation for having a legion of friends “who stuck like glue,” said attorney Dan K. Webb, a powerhouse in the legal world and, like Thompson, a former U.S. attorney.

“His friendships were worldwide and forever,” said Webb, one of a cadre of legal eagles Thompson hired during his years in federal office.

Described as a rainmaker and kingmaker, “Thompson was the person who brought everyone together,” Webb recalled. “And we’ve been swapping hilarious stories about our years together for decades.

“He was my mentor. I don’t think I’ve made an important decision in my entire life that I haven’t talked to him about first,” Webb said.

Thompson was also a man who loved pomp and circumstance.

“He loved flags and whistles and sirens and parades and working a crowd,” according to former Illinois Attorney General Ty Fahner, who accompanied his former boss on numerous visits to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., when Thompson was U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois.

“Back then, I watched him artfully snag rides back to the airport in the U.S. attorney’s big black limo with sirens blowing and flags fluttering all the way through the nation’s capital,” he said.

Webb recalled a story Thompson told about getting stopped by a state police officer while driving U.S. Attorney General William French Smith to a big meeting in Springfield.

“Jim had been driving his own car with his siren blazing on top of it,” said Webb. “The cop had told Jim it was illegal to use a siren — and William French Smith told Jim under no circumstances should he be identified as the passenger in Jim’s car.

“So Jim got out of the car and immediately informed the police officer that U.S. Attorney William French was in his car; they were late for an important meeting. ... He got to the meeting in time,” Webb said.

One of Thompson’s closest friends was former Gov. George Ryan, whose federal extortion trial involving Ryan’s time as secretary of state could have ended their relationship.

Instead, Thompson, then the chairman of his law firm, decided to have his firm represent Ryan pro bono. For free. Webb, the firm’s managing partner, was Ryan’s defense attorney.

Saddened by the news of Thompson’s death, Ryan told Sneed: “He was a tall man, but he never looked down on anyone. He was a tower of courage.”

Ryan said he and Thompson, both Republicans, were not only close personal friends but colleagues in government, where Thompson “got things done for the state.”

“He was also a dear friend,” Ryan said. “Years ago, my daughter was involved in a serious accident in Springfield. In a coma. I wasn’t in Springfield at the time. Thompson and Jayne went to the hospital that night and stayed there until I got there.

“Jayne and I talked three days ago, and she was excited he was feeling better,” Ryan said. “Then she called me early this morning to tell me the news.

“It’s a heartbreak. But life goes on,” added Ryan, who lost his beloved wife, Lura Lynn, to cancer while he was in prison.

“But Jim Thompson was a giant the state won’t forget.”