Dan Walker, ex-governor with ‘a journey . . . unequaled by many’ dead at 92
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His name was Walker and he walked across the state.
That’s what Illinoisans remember most about Dan Walker, the maverick Democratic reformer who served one term as governor in the mid 1970s. Walker died Wednesday morning at his home in Chula Vista, California. He was 92.
They recall his epic 1,197 mile stroll across the state in the summer of 1971, from within sight of Kentucky to the Wisconsin border.
“It’s remarkable to me how many people remember that walk,” his son, Dan Walker Jr., one of his seven children, said Wednesday.
The second thing they remember is that Walker went to prison, 17 and a half months in the federal pen in Duluth, Minn. — though, as Walker always pointed out, it was not for anything he did while in office. Rather, he pleaded guilty to charges of bank fraud and perjury related to loans he acquired under false pretenses.
As governor, Walker kept Richard J. Daley’s dream of a Crosstown Expressway from being built, saving thousands of homes in its path. His other most significant accomplishment— one tormenting our current governor — was he championed legislation giving state workers the right to unionize.
He was also author of the Walker Report, the study of the 1968 Democratic National Convention unrest that coined the term “police riot.”
“I like to think of it as a man who experienced the joys of the mountaintop and the depths of the valley,” said Dan Walker Jr. “If you’re a human being, it’s all about the journey. He had a journey that is unequaled by many, many people. He always believed in onward and upward, no matter what happened.”
Gov. Bruce Rauner on Wednesday ordered flags flown at half-staff at state buildings “in honor and remembrance” of Walker.
“Diana and I are saddened to learn of the passing of former Governor Dan Walker,” Rauner said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time.”
Former Gov. Pat Quinn, who served in Walker’s administration, lauded his former boss for his “patriotism, service and compassion.”
“As a member of the United States Navy, Gov. Dan Walker served our country with courage and distinction in World War II and the Korean War,” Quinn said in a written statement.
“He fervently believed in the power of democracy and the importance of including everyone in our democracy. He loved his family and leaves behind many friends. His patriotism, service and compassion will never be forgotten. May God rest his soul.”
Walker was born in Washington, D.C., to Virginia and Lewis Walker. His father was a chief petty officer in the Navy. Walker joined the Navy in 1939, entered the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and served in World War II, graduating from Northwestern Law School in between. In 1950 he joined the Commission to Study State Government in Springfield, then clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Fred Vinson before joining the staff of then-Gov. Adlai Stevenson in 1952. He also served in the Korean War.
Walker became a trial lawyer for Hopkins-Sutter, then joined Montgomery Ward, becoming a vice president and legal counsel. In 1970, he managed Adlai E. Stevenson’s campaign for U.S. Senate, and won. He decided to run for governor in 1971. But he had difficulty raising money or catching the eye of the newspapers, so he borrowed a stunt from Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles: he walked across the state, in hiking boots and a red bandanna.
“The people out there didn’t see a politician walking at all,” Walker told the Sun-Times in 2002. “They saw a man walking.”
He started in Brookport, across the river from Paducah, Kentucky. He had massive blisters on his feet by the end of the first day, but pushed on, joined at times by his sons and a scattering of passersby and media.
It worked. The TV stations and the newspapers started following him. He upset the Democratic candidate, Lt. Gov. Paul Simon, and unseated Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie in the general election. He ran as an anti-machine reformer, and was a constant irritant to Chicago’s powerful mayor, Richard J. Daley.
“I had no doubt Daley genuinely hated Dan Walker,” former Sen. Alan J. Dixon wrote in his memoirs.
“I represented a life totally alien to his,” Walker said, in an oral history. “I was not a Chicagoan. I was not Catholic. I made no bones of my . . . being in some respects, certainly, a reformer.”
Like many reformers, Walker had trouble accomplishing his goals once in office, though he did start the Regional Transit Authority and the Illinois State Lottery. Still, he proved a singularly unpopular politician, and Daley threw his energies against him, backing Secretary of State Michael Howlett in the March 1976 Democratic primary. Howlett went on to lose in the fall against former prosecutor Jim Thompson, who got about two-thirds of the vote.
Leaving office, Walker divorced his wife of 30 years, Roberta Dowse, and remarried, also to a woman named Roberta — Roberta Nelson — and he began a series of failed endeavors — a hunting and fishing club, a chain of law offices. It was trying to maintain his lifestyle without the money to fuel it that led to his downfall.
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“It was a status he never thought he’d achieve,” said Robert Ellis, a journalist who worked on a biography of Walker. “It allowed him to meet important people and reach a level of social prominence that enchanted him. He missed the roar of the crowd. He didn’t want to give that lifestyle up.”
U.S. District Court Judge Ann Williams sentenced Walker to seven years for fraudulently obtaining $1.4 million in bank loans. She said he used Oak Brook-based First American Savings and Loan as “a personal piggy bank, a personal kitty” to maintain a lavish lifestyle, including an 80-foot yacht, “The Governor’s Lady.”
He entered prison in 1987, “traumatized and not in touch with reality,” to use his description from his 2007 memoir, “The Maverick and the Machine.” He was released in 1989 due to ill health.
Afterward, it pained Walker to be included in the list of jailed Illinois governors.
“I am very sensitive about the constant reiteration that ‘Dan Walker went to jail along with those other governors like Ryan,’” he told the Daily Herald in 2008. “I have very deep feelings about honesty in government and somewhat resentful that the executive orders that I signed bringing a whole new emphasis on ethics in government were, at the time and have since been, largely ignored.”
Survivors include his third wife, Lily Stewart, as well as sons Daniel Jr., William and Charlie; daughters Kathleen Vaught, Julie Kollar, Robbie Walker and Margaret Morrissette; and 22 grandchildren.