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Walker boasted he was ‘a two-fisted trial lawyer’

SPRINGFIELD – Dan Walker, a man who served one term as Illinois’ governor and a second as federal inmate, died Wednesday in California, where he was serving a self-imposed exile from the state he once led.

He became governor in 1973 by defeating two Illinois political icons.

OPINION

First he beat then-Lt. Gov. Paul Simon in the Democratic primary and next Gov. Richard Ogilvie in the general election.

Ogilvie was damaged politically by helping create Illinois’ first income tax.

“I supported the income tax. I thought it was a good idea. I made a point of congratulating Ogilvie on it over and over again — perhaps a bit maliciously,” Walker told me in a 2002 interview.

It was vintage Walker, a man who never walked away from a political brawl but lost far more than he won.

“I had a hell of a time with the Legislature. I didn’t really know how bad it would be. Reporters kept asking me when I was going to make an accommodation for Mayor [Richard J.] Daley. I kept saying, `Why don’t you ask him when will he make an accommodation for me?’ ” Walker said. “I was a two-fisted trial lawyer. I took on tough jobs. I was very assertive and a very confident person.”

I walked away from that San Diego interview thinking that Walker was brilliant, ambitious and perhaps the most arrogant human being I’d ever met.

He managed to work into the conversation that he had an IQ of 172 and that U.S. Chief Justice Fred Vinson, whom he clerked for, was “Nice, but not brilliant.”

During his time in office, the most significant legislation he signed was the act creating the Illinois Lottery.

But he was largely ambivalent about this milestone, saying, “I don’t consider it my biggest regret. It was going to become law anyway. The Legislature would have overridden my veto.”

The advent of the lottery led the way for casino gambling to come to the Land of Lincoln, something Walker considered to be a negative consequence.

In 1987, Walker was convicted of bank fraud, misapplication of bank funds and perjury and served 18 months of a seven-year sentence. The conviction was not related to his time as governor.

Tears welled in his eyes during our interview. “I’m not talking about that,” he said.

Years later he told me he had been subjected to repeated body cavity searches by guards and singled out for harsh treatment because he was a former governor.

He first worked as an assistant to the prison chaplain, but that ended when a new warden was assigned to the Duluth, Minnesota, prison and handed him a 3-foot stick with a nail on the end.

“‘You’re fired from your cushy chapel job,” Walker recalled the warden saying. “Using that stick, you’ll pick up all the cigarette butts and put them in a tin can you’ll carry. I don’t give a damn if the temperature outside is below zero. It’s your shtick and your stick, Walker.’ ”

Burned into the wood were the words: “Governor’s stick.”

Years earlier, Walker had braved the elements to become governor.

On the shores of the Ohio River, he began what was perhaps his most audacious move — a walk from the Kentucky border to Chicago — 1,197 miles.

The 115-day trek captured the imagination of the public in the era of hippies, anti-war demonstrations and bell-bottom jeans.

Walker, an Annapolis graduate and corporate executive, might have seemed an odd choice to receive the adulation of flower children and labor groups.

But the walk was a calculated move to make the corporate counsel for Montgomery Ward appear approachable.

Four years later, bumper stickers were printed that asked: “He can walk the state, but can he run it?”

Scott Reeder writes for Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute, where this column was posted.