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Sneed exclusive: Excerpts from George Ryan’s new book

“I came to see the abolition of the death penalty as perhaps the greatest opportunity before me to leave the world a better place than it is now,” the former governor writes.

After his final meeting with a newspaper editorial board during the 1998 campaign, Republican gubernatorial candidate George Ryan greets his wife, Lura Lynn, outside the offices of the Chicago Defender. His staff had brought her from their downtown apartment to meet him. 10/22/98
George Ryan kisses his wife, Lura Lynn, during a campaign stop in 1998
Sun-Times filed photo

Sneed exclusive . . .

Former Gov. George Ryan, 86, is a man on a final mission.

“I want to make a difference with the time I have left,” he tells Sneed.

Once a highly regarded member of the Illinois General Assembly — as well as secretary of state, House speaker, lieutenant governor and governor, he declared a state moratorium on the death penalty in 2000 that eventually led to its abolition.

But Ryan’s resume also includes a go-to jail card: A federal corruption probe netted him six years in a federal prison in 2007 — during which time his wife and brother died of cancer. Two funerals he could not attend.

Now he’s on the verge of the release Sept. 18 of his first book: “Until I Could Be Sure.” Published by Rowman & Littlefield, it’s available now for pre-order through Amazon.

In the book, which is excerpted exclusively in this column, an aging Ryan tells the story of how he took his hand off the switch of what he called the “death machine.”

Ryan describes the time in 1977 when he pushed to reinstate the death penalty in Illinois on a clear spring day.

“Little did I know that twenty-two years later, my hand would be on that very switch,” he writes.

“I came to see the abolition of the death penalty as perhaps the greatest opportunity before me to leave the world a better place than it is now.”

Now self-quarantined at his Kankakee family compound since one of his six children recently tested positive with COVID-19, Ryan’s book is not a primer on his political career and subsequent headline-grabbing court drama based on a federal investigation of the drivers licenses for bribes scandal during his tenure as secretary of state.

However, Ryan’s book, co-authored by former Chicago Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Maurice Possley, contains a dramatic epilogue where Ryan states: “I know all too well that when many people hear my name, they think first of my trial, the conviction, and the prison term.

“Yes, I went to prison. It happened, I got through it and I have moved on. I have slowed down a little over the years, but I’m not quite ready to give up trying to make a difference in society.”

Ryan tells Sneed he is now “moving foreword, keeping one foot in front of the other. Staying positive. That’s what keeps me going.”

The book’s foreword is compelling; written by international bestselling author and attorney Scott Turow, who was once a federal prosecutor and appointee to the Commission on Capital Punishment — and lauds Ryan’s capital punishment stance as “courageous and entirely earnest.

Ryan “probably will turn out to be, in the judgment of history, the pivotal figure in the evolution of Americans’ attitudes toward capital punishment.”

Turow also states: “Ryan’s four years as governor of Illinois was in my view the best gubernatorial term since I returned to Illinois in 1978.”

Although Turow supports Ryan’s conviction on corruption charges while he was secretary of state, he is adamant “there was not a shred of evidence connecting George Ryan to that horrible, fatal accident,” where six children were killed in a highway collision by a reckless truck driver who got a license after bribing a state employee.

Turow also nixes rumors Ryan’s jump aboard the capital punishment bandwagon was driven by ulterior motives.

“No one has ever made a coherent argument to me on that point,” he states.

Ryan says now he found himself in a “dark place” when his wife, Lura Lynn, died in June 2011.

“Our marriage was made in heaven, and yet, I couldn’t even be there for her when she needed me the most. But life has to go on,” he said.

Ryan later became close to Alice “Kitty” Kelly, a widow who helped him climb out of that dark place after his wife died. Kelly died unexpectedly last June.

“She made my life a joy again,” he said.

The book includes a dedication to both women.

First lady Melania Trump speaks to the 2020 Republican National Convention from the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020, in Washington.
AP Photos

My, my Melania . . .

Gads!

The last time I saw someone wearing an outfit akin to the military garb first lady Melania “from Slovenia” Trump was wearing during her GOP convention speech was my attendance at a dinner with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro in 2000, when Gov. Ryan led a trade delegation to Havana.

Sneedlings . . .

Condolences to my friend, attorney Maureen Lydon, and the family of Frank Zuccari, who headed the Art Institute’s Conservation Department, on his recent death. . . . . Saturday’s birthdays: Neil Gorsuch, 53, and Rebecca De Mornay, 61. . . . Sunday’s birthdays: Cameron Diaz, 48; Warren Buffett, 90; Jordan Rodgers, 32 and a happy belated birthday to Beth MacCormack, priceless wife of Marc.