As serendipity would have it, my career in the local news business — print, radio, and television — spanned the entirety of Jim Thompson’s career as U.S. attorney, Illinois Governor, and Chicago law firm rainmaker.
So I’m arguably as familiar with the highs and lows of his public and private personas as most of my journalism and watchdog contemporaries.
But instead of joining the chorus of analysts who, following his death at age 84 last week, have been opining on his impactful life, I’d like to share a few personal anecdotes that you probably won’t see, hear, or read anywhere else. If it helps paint a fuller picture of a larger than life figure — literally and figuratively — mission accomplished.
"Big Jim" was tall—six feet six inches—and his height apparently cost me a newspaper job. In 1974, when I was a cub reporter learning the ropes at the City News Bureau, Chicago’s bygone journalistic training ground, our editors recommended me and another CNB reporter for a Chicago Tribune internship, which would have probably led to a full-time job.
Colleagues told me I was the odds-on favorite, and I was thrilled, but the other guy was chosen. I was crestfallen, but amused to learn years later that the Tribune editor at the time chose my competitor because he was Thompson’s height, which would have presumably made him a more imposing news presence as “Big Jim” embarked on his first gubernatorial campaign.
It’s the only time being six feet tall was a blot on my resume. Years later I shared the story and a hearty laugh with Thompson.
- As governor, Thompson was the inadvertent cause of a near case of reporter frostbite. In January of 1980, with Chicago’s public schools shut down by a financial crisis, he convened a summit meeting of key players at the Governor’s Mansion in Springfield.
For three brutally cold days, Thompson and the others negotiated inside the Mansion while yours truly — by then I was covering the education beat at NBC 5 — and a few other reporters froze outside the locked gate waiting for news.
Finally, late in the afternoon of Day 3, they reached a deal and we were ushered inside the Mansion to get the details. But it took half an hour for my fingers to regain the dexterity to take notes.
I never shared that story with Thompson because I never forgave him for keeping our media pack out in the cold — especially when the Mansion was big enough to give each of us a private room to wait in.
- Thompson was a serious collector of paintings, sculptures, antiques, and artifacts. His hobby sparked allegations — and even an investigation or two — into whether he was trading government favors or clouting his way into art bargains.
Nothing ever came of it, but a friend of mine who worked as an art restorer had Thompson as a client. We spent hours trading war stories about the Jim Thompson I covered in politics and the Jim Thompson who, for two decades, brought in paintings for my friend to restore — and who apparently resisted paying the bills my friend patiently sent, one after another, until he needed another new painting restored enough to finally pay up.
- After he retired as governor in 1990, Thompson joined a prestigious downtown law firm, Winston & Strawn. There, he raked in millions in legal business for the firm from old Republican friends in government who he'd helped along the way. One such benefactor was then-Gov. George Ryan, and Thompson paid him back — to the admiration of some who appreciated his loyalty and the chagrin of others who questioned his judgement — by recruiting his powerhouse law partner Dan Webb to handle Ryan’s corruption defense pro bono.
My ABC-7 coverage of Ryan’s trial (and Thompson’s involvement) rankled the former governor, who dropped me from the guest list at the law firm’s annual Christmas party. But the image I'll remember from the parties I did attend was of Thompson sitting on the edge of the stage in a hotel ballroom, receiving the well wishes of several hundred political insiders who waited patiently in line for a moment of facetime with the former governor. Most of the firm’s other lawyers simply mingled with the crowd. It was the Chicago Way writ large.
Jim Thompson did indeed have a major impact on Illinois government, politics, and legal affairs, affecting the lives of millions — some for better, some for worse. Either way, it’s a privilege to be able to share a few inside stories about a man who was undeniably "Big," in both stature and attitude.
Andy Shaw has been a Chicago journalist and good-government watchdog since 1972, most recently as head of the Better Government Association. He now chairs the CHANGE Illinois Action Fund.