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Back Room

Jesse White

The secretary of state and tumbler king on fast talking and fast driving

Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

I never traced my roots, man. I only know that I’m a brother with a big heart—and that somebody brought my roots over here by way of boat.

When I was 7, we moved 300 miles from Alton, Illinois, to the Near North Side, near Larrabee and Division. That was Little Italy back then, before it moved west to Taylor Street. You had to capisce Italiano. Later on it became Cabrini-Green.

I used to jump out of airplanes. I was a member of the 101st Airborne Division. When parachuting, you never look down at the ground. You feel for it with your legs. Your knees are your shock absorbers—you cannot tighten them. Same as skiing.

You never want to look down in life, either. I tell the kids, “The only time you look down is when you’re tying your shoes.”

I’ve had over 17,500 Jesse White Tumblers. And at last count, only 120 have gotten themselves in trouble with the law. Most of these kids come from a motherless or fatherless home. I serve as a safety net.

If they tumble and they’re African American, they came through me. We have some kids with blond hair and blue eyes, too. I’m an equal-opportunity good influence.

I’m a disciplinarian. And I’ve always been disciplined. I like to be on time. If I have a job to do, I’m going to see it from its beginning to its conclusion. No excuses, no alibis. That’s how I run my life. It’s called self–tough love.

I speak very quickly, even for an elected public servant. So if I fast-talk you, I’m not trying to mislead you.

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I run the largest secretary of state’s office in the nation, with a staff of nearly 4,000 in 138 DMV facilities across the state. I’ve been to them all. I do it every year to make sure our services are rendered in a timely manner. When renewing your license, you no longer need to bring your duffel bag and lunch pail.

I get kidded because each DMV has numerous pictures of me on display. They’ve changed a lot over my years in office. I went from having hair to only having hair at the sides. Then they used to color it a little bit. So I finally said the heck with it, and I’ve been shaving my head ever since.

President Lincoln’s image is now bigger than ever on our state license plates. We’re talking about my savior here, what with freeing the slaves.

I need some sensitivity training, don’t I?

Sometimes I send drivers little notes if I happen to see them make an infraction. I’ll write down their license plate number, then find out who they are. I’ll write, “I was driving along the Eisenhower Expressway and noticed that you were not driving in a responsible manner. I just hope you will seriously consider obeying the rules of the road in the future.” I’m guessing it gets their interest.

My ex-wife lives in the same apartment building. I’m on the seventh floor, she’s on the eighth. I see her every three weeks or so in the hallway or the elevator. We’re family, we’re good.

I have two grown daughters from a previous situation. The key to raising daughters? Let me first make the sign of the cross here. Prayer helps as well as anything.

I’ve held elected office for 40 years: I’ve been a state lawmaker for 16, the Cook County recorder of deeds for six, and 18 in this office. I spent 10 years in the military, eight playing baseball in the Cubs farm leagues, 33 teaching school, and 58 overseeing tumbler teams. Yet I’m not 150. I’m a youthful 82. Let’s just say I’ve done a lot of multitasking.

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