‘Helpless Hopeless’; Walker’s memoir recalls famous walk, time as gov, prison life
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Note: This article originally ran June 8, 2007
Dan Walker is almost certainly the only former Illinois governor whose memoir includes an eyewitness account of his prison cellmate being gang-raped.
“That was a searing experience because you watch that, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it,” Walker said. “Absolutely nothing. The guards would not interfere. You were helpless and hopeless watching that happen.”
Critics of the one-term Democratic governor — and he still has his share — will no doubt pounce on Walker’s new autobiography, arguing about his portrayal of his many political battles or the spin he puts on events.
But one point seems beyond dispute.
No Illinois governor has written about his life in such revealing, personal and painful detail.
BALKS AT IMAGE AS COMBATIVE
“It was damned hard,” Walker said. “The family did not want me to write about the prison experience, and they urged me not to write about it. But I finally decided to do it, and when I did, I decided to tell it fully and honestly.”
Now a resident of Escondido, Calif., Walker, 84, is in Chicago to promote his book, The Maverick and the Machine: Governor Dan Walker Tells His Story. Published by the Southern Illinois University Press, it’s available in hardcover for $29.95.
“The purpose was to frankly and honestly describe what I was about in running for governor, as I did, and then how I lived through what happened after I left office,” he said.
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Walker is probably best known for his 1,197-mile walk across Illinois in 1971 to gin up publicity for his successful 1972 run for governor.
On Monday, he plans to be in Springfield to donate items to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. They include the dusty old boots he wore, a tie made from his trademark red bandanna and other memorabilia from the walk.
His book has plenty about the walk — spread across five chapters — and much about Walker’s childhood in California, his rise to political prominence in Chicago, his famed “Walker Report,” which described the 1968 Democratic Convention melee as “a police riot,” his 1976 re-election defeat and his battles with Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Walker still bristles at descriptions of him as combative, insisting that he only wanted to reform a corrupt system.
Chilling story of cellmate’s rape
“I’ve been called a confrontationist,” Walker said. “My desire from the beginning was to try to change the rotten system. And I ran into a stone wall. . . . I hope people will realize what I was fighting against and why I was fighting to use every power that I could to fight the damn system.”
Offsetting any attaboys that Walker awards himself is the detailed recounting of his fall, which culminated in his 1987 conviction for bank fraud and perjury related to an Oak Brook savings and loan Walker owned after leaving the governor’s mansion.
Walker does not dismiss it in a few cursory paragraphs as other public figures often do when writing of their foibles — far from it.
Walker begins every chapter with an anecdote from his 17 months in a federal prison in Duluth, Minn.
He writes of picking up cigarettes with a nail in a wooden rod the warden labeled the “governor’s stick,” scrubbing toilets, enduring threats from fellow inmates and the humiliation of guards ordering him to “strip and spread” during forced body cavity searches in the sub-zero prison yard.
Walker pulls no punches in writing about contemplating suicide — even describing his plan to jump from a prison water tower.
“Suicide,” Walker writes. “I have never used that word in my nightmarish daydreaming. I think of it only as ‘finding death.’ Jumping to find, to meet, my death. To find, yes, nothing. To be enveloped by blackness. Total surcease from life and all of its disasters and all of my mistakes.”
Just as chilling is his account of three inmates slipping into his room one night and raping his cellmate, an upper-class young man doing time for a drug conviction.
“Startled awake, he takes in the scene as they force him to turn his body back up,” Walker writes. “One of the guys pins him to the bunk while another drops his shorts, clambers over the young man, and sodomizes him while the other two watch. Then the other two take their turns.”
It’s a section that should be required reading for any Illinois politician betting that the worst he will suffer is sunburn in the minimum security federal prisons routinely dismissed as “Club Fed.”
‘I BARED MY SOUL’
Walker said he hopes other pols will find his account of prison life sobering — but he quickly adds that his crimes occurred after he left office and had nothing to do with his government service.
The former governor said he has no misgivings about anything he put in the book, saying the experience helped him find peace.
“I laid it on the line,” Walker said. “I bared my soul. And one can think poorly about me or whatever. I think I have been very honest about where I fell down, where I failed and where I think I succeeded. But I did not hesitate to tell where I failed.”
“I wanted my family to know why I ran for governor, what I tried to do as governor. And I wanted them to know the price I paid for the mistakes that I made.”