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Illinois remembers former Gov. ‘Big Jim’ Thompson, a ‘hard-nosed political leader’ with ‘kindness’

Thompson led the state for 14 years and drew praise from both sides of the aisle.

Former Gov. James Thompson speaks at the December 2014 memorial service for former Illinois State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. Thompson died Friday at age 84. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media
Former Gov. James Thompson speaks at the December 2014 memorial service for former Illinois State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka. Thompson died Friday at age 84. | Ashlee Rezin/for Sun-Times Media
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Tributes poured in Saturday for former Illinois Gov. James Thompson, the state’s longest-serving governor — and one of its most popular.

Thompson died at a Chicago rehabilitation center Friday evening, several weeks after suffering a fall. He was 84.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker said “‘Big Jim’ was known to treat people he encountered with kindness and decency.

“He dedicated himself to building positive change for Illinois, and he set an example for public service of which Illinoisans should be proud,” Pritzker said in a statement. “He will be remembered and revered as one of the titans in the history of state government.”

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan and his wife Shirley Madigan called Thompson “a hard-nosed political leader.”

“The passing of Jim Thompson brings great sadness to our family. He was a cherished friend,” the Madigans said in a statement. “Jim Thompson should be credited with the modernization of Illinois government as best illustrated by the structure that bears his name.

The James R. Thompson Center, the former governor’s namesake state government building in the Loop.
The James R. Thompson Center, the former governor’s namesake state government building in the Loop.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“His pioneering commitment to the arts strengthened the fabric of our state. He was a hard-nosed political figure and a compassionate leader. We were honored to serve with him,” the Madigans said. “On behalf of our children, Lisa, Tiffany, Nicole, and Andrew, we offer our deepest sympathies to [Thompson’s wife] Jayne and [daughter] Samantha. We offer them prayers of comfort and strength in these sad times. Illinois is a better place because of Jim Thompson’s work.”

Illinois House Republican Leader Jim Durkin called Thompson “a friend, mentor and an exemplary statesman who loved Illinois.

“He was a hands-on governor who loved the process of getting things done in Springfield, and his accomplishments still stand strong today. Our state was fortunate to have such a dedicated leader,” Durkin said.

Former Gov. Pat Quinn hailed his late predecessor from the other side of the aisle for working to root out corruption both as governor and as a federal prosecutor.

“From the time he signed the Political Honesty Initiative — to stop legislative conflicts of interest, double dipping, and advance pay for politicians — when he was first running for governor in 1976, Gov. Jim Thompson stood for cleaning up corruption in Illinois politics and government,” Quinn said in a statement. “As U.S. attorney, he brought to justice scores of corrupt public officials. As governor of Illinois for a record 14 years, Jim Thompson always remained true to his conscience and convictions.

“Jim Thompson generously helped me when I was governor of Illinois from 2009 to 2015,” Quinn continued. “For the past four decades, he has strengthened the annual conference of U.S. Midwest states and the people and businesses of Japan, an international legacy of friendship that created and maintained thousands of jobs in Illinois.

“The people of Illinois owe a permanent debt of gratitude to Gov. James R. ‘Big Jim’ Thompson,” Quinn said.

James Thompson claims victory on Election night in 1986.
James Thompson claims victory on Election night in 1986.
Sun-Times file

Federal district Judge James Zagel, who led the state revenue department and the Illinois State Police under Thompson, said he “admired him for his talents, his accomplishments and unwavering dedication to public service.

“He has left a wonderful legacy for the State of Illinois, and, for hundreds of us who worked with him, lasting memories of a wonderful colleague, boss and governor,” Zagel said.

A moderate Republican, Thompson “created lasting positive change,” Illinois GOP Party Chairman Tim Schneider said.

“Today the Illinois Republican Party mourns the loss of a great leader in Illinois’ storied history. Governor ‘Big Jim’ Thompson exemplified a state government that worked, treated others with legendary kindness, and created lasting positive change for Illinois over his 14 years as governor,” Schneider said. “He helped send a corrupt governor to jail as a prosecutor, rebuilt the state’s infrastructure, saved the White Sox and presided over a healthy and prosperous Illinois. Our thoughts and prayers are with Jayne and his family at this time.”

White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said Thompson’s “commitment to keeping the White Sox in Chicago is legendary,” referring to his brokerage of a deal for a new ballpark that kept the team from moving to Florida in 1988.

“Only someone with Big Jim’s passion and outsized character could make projects happen on such a grand scale across Illinois,” Reinsdorf said. “Throughout his life, Gov. Thompson remained a fan of Illinois, a fan of the little guy, and his mark on this state will be long lasting to the benefit of us all.”

Sen. Dick Durbin said his relationship with Thompson called back to a time of less partisan acrimony.

“We were political adversaries yet personal friends back in the day when that was not uncommon,” Durbin tweeted. “Try as we might, we Democrats just could not beat Big Jim.”

Democratic Illinois Senate President Don Harmon said “no one enjoyed being governor more than Jim Thompson. Our state lost a true giant, and he will be missed. My condolences go out to his family and friends.”

State Comptroller Susana Mendoza said the former governor “leaves a proud legacy of working across party lines to make Illinois a great state. Thank you for your service and for keeping the White Sox in Chicago, Big Jim.”

Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul commended Thompson for “dedicating many years to serving the people of Illinois and working toward making our state a better place to live and work. My thoughts and prayers are with Jayne Thompson and all who knew and loved Governor Thompson.”