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Walker knows Ryan’s plight: Last ex-gov to face criminal charges can sympathize — to a point

NOTE: This article was first published Oct. 2, 2005

He rose to the top of Illinois politics in the 1970s by walking across the state in a blue work shirt, khakis, hiking boots and a red bandanna.

But by the late 1980s, Dan Walker was sitting in prison in Minnesota in military-style fatigues and jail-issue work shoes, thinking of taking his own life.

“It’s hard to confront, but I have been trying to write about the serious consideration I gave to suicide,” said Walker, who is writing his memoirs. “Very hard to write about. It’s hard to put it all together about how one seriously considers suicide and then rejects that.”

The Democrat is the last former Illinois governor to face criminal charges — but he is quick to point out that his case is different from that of Republican George Ryan, who is now on trial for alleged corruption while in office.

“The two situations are not even remotely related — except to the extent that both of us got hit over the head,” Walker said. “But he got hit over the head for things he did while he was in office. I got hit in the head by some things that happened when I was running a business.”

And Walker pleaded guilty, so there was no trial.

Still, Walker, 83, says he has an idea what Ryan is going through.

“My heart goes out to him because of what has happened to his life,” Walker said. “It’s a traumatic experience.”

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Besides Walker and Ryan, four other past Illinois governors were indicted or came close, but they are all dead, including Democrat Otto Kerner, the only other one convicted and sent to prison.

With Ryan’s trial gearing up, Walker agreed to share his thoughts with the Chicago Sun-Times in a telephone interview from his home in California. He discussed his rise and fall, his bout with despair and his concerns over how he will be remembered.

“Put it this way, speaking for myself, I’m a proud man,” Walker said. “I’m very proud of what I did as governor.”

No one took ‘steps that I did’

Aside from his fall, Walker knows what he is best remembered for:

The walk.

“Without question.” Walker said.

And Walker remembers it, too. Ask him how many miles he walked during the 1972 campaign, and he doesn’t miss a beat.

“Eleven hundred and ninety-seven,” he answers, as though he remembers every step.

Political insiders also remember the maverick Democrat as being unnecessarily combative. He won in 1972 as a reformer who beat the Democratic Machine and then continued to battle Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and his allies.

Walker says he would like to be remembered for his ethics proposals, including an executive order banning state employees under his authority from asking other state workers to make campaign contributions or do political work.

“No governor in the history of Illinois has ever . . . taken the kinds of steps that I did to bring ethics, transparency and accountability to state government,” Walker said. “None. And the record is very clear on that.

“And here I find myself having this happen to me.

“My world crashed, yes. Yes.”

‘I got careless’

The crash came more than 10 years after Walker left office and went into business, running a savings and loan and a string of quick-oil-change franchises.

He pleaded guilty in 1987 to bank fraud and perjury for lying to U.S. bank officials, filing false financial statements and improperly borrowing $45,000 from a friend who had borrowed $279,000 from an Oak Brook savings and loan Walker owned.

“I got careless,” Walker said. “My wife and I were running two businesses, and I just got real, real careless.”

At the time, his lawyer, Thomas A. Foran, argued that the former governor “had been spoiled by success, the perquisites of office, the ego-massaging of associates and staff.”

Asked how the shift to private life figuredin his fall, Walker paused.

“Self-examination … is always a very difficult thing,” he finally said.

“Did that play a role here? I guess I would have to say I suppose it did. … I don’t think as much as Tom indicated when he made that statement publicly. But, then, that’s me saying that.

“I’m not a very reliable judge of myself, am I?”

‘Poor little old me’

Walker went to prison in 1988. Inside, he began to contemplate suicide, calling it “one of those things that kind of builds up as the months went by, and the sheer immensity of it really came home.

“I had a double whammy there because not only did I have the downfall that we’ve just been talking about, but my wife divorced me, which was a blow,” Walker said. “I seriously considered suicide.”

Walker resisted through self-discipline he learned in the military and by remembering the words of his father, who had warned about a disease he called PLOM.

“Poor little old me,” Walker explained. “He used to say to my brother and myself, ‘Don’t ever, ever, let that disease take hold of you. Because it’s an insidious disease — poor little old me — feeling sorry for yourself.’

“And his words came back to me repeatedly.”

‘Sympathy’ for Ryan

Walker was released from prison after 17 months. He moved to California, where he had grown up, fearing his rugged, aged face was still too familiar in Illinois.

“I could tell when people recognized me by the look in their eyes, often — not always — but often,” Walker said.

“And then I couldn’t help but wonder, ‘What are they thinking?’ … Are they thinking about ‘that jailbird’?

“I just couldn’t handle that,” he said. “That wiping out of all the good things I’d done in the minds of people was a thing that really hurt bad, really hurt bad.”

Though he’s about 2,000 miles away, he still follows Illinois politics by reading newspapers’ Web sites.

Walker has mixed feelings on Ryan. He gives the Republican credit for “courageously tackling the death penalty,” but adds, “I wonder that he didn’t show more courage in doing things like that throughout his tenure as secretary of state and governor.”

The Democrat is also critical of Ryan’s record on ethics but says he does have sympathy for him.

“Yes, I have sympathy for him,” Walker said after a long pause. “I have sympathy for any person that’s got caught up in our criminal justice system in the United States.

“Having had that experience, why my heart goes out to him and even more so if he should be found guilty. … I hope for the sake of his family that he is not — but I don’t know anything about the evidence.”

‘Getting hold of my life’

Today, Walker and his third wife, a retired nurse, own two homes — a small one in Escondido, a suburb of San Diego, and a large condo on the ocean in Mexico.

He works one day a week at a used bookstore and spends the rest of his time writing. He has had three historical books published but says he doesn’t make much money off them.

He supports himself through “Social Security and a wife.”

In his memoirs, Walker is trying to shape his legacy and “trying to be honest in admitting my failures and my mistakes because when you have a public life, you might as well admit them because they’re right there.”

“I have no complaints,” he said. “I’m reasonably healthy for 83. I think I do pretty well. I walk every day, use the exercycle and then research and write.”

‘A roller coaster life’

But what about regrets?

“Regrets? Well, certainly I regret that I did that which got me into jail,” Walker said. “Other than that, no. I’ve had a very roller coaster life, very roller coaster. And except for that — which, of course, I regret exceedingly — boy, no, I don’t have any regrets.”

But Walker said he sometimes wonders how his life might have turned out differently if he had run for president in 1976, instead of seeking re-election.

“Let me just put it this way, I think I had a hell of a good chance of beating Jimmy Carter in the primaries,” he said. “I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious.”

Walker lost the primary for governor, after rejecting an aide’s advice to start campaigning in New Hampshire.

“My whole life would have been different,” Walker said.