chicago politics

Former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, Longest-Serving Governor in State History, Dies at 84

Thompson died shortly after 8 p.m. Friday at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in downtown Chicago, his wife, Jayne Thompson told the Tribune

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Former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson passed away Friday night at the age of 84.

Thompson died shortly after 8 p.m. Friday at the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in downtown Chicago, his wife, Jayne Thompson told the Chicago Tribune.

"The Thompson family is mourning the loss of a wonderful husband, father and grandfather," a statement from the family read. "Jim Thompson’s love and devotion to his family mirrored his lifelong dedication to his beloved State of Illinois. His guiding principle in public and private life was to help people and do what he could so they could have an opportunity to succeed. In that process, he achieved big things for Illinois that matched the life he lived."

Thompson, a Republican, served as governor for 14 years from 1976 to 1991. Prior to being elected, he was appointed by President Nixon as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. Before then, he worked in the Cook County state's attorney's office.

One of his biggest achievements in office was orchestrating the deal that kept the Chicago White Sox on the South Side of the city, culminating with the opening of Guaranteed Rate Field in the early 1990s.

Thompson drew wide praise for his bipartisan approach to the governorship, as well as his demeanor and kindness when interacting with fellow public officials and with constituents.

"There is nothing wrong with government anywhere that some simple honesty, openness and candor wont cure," Thompson said during his first inauguration speech. "If this had been the creed at every level of American government everywhere in the nation… public officials would not now be in prison, your taxes would not now be misspent, politics would not now be disgraced, the government would not now be mistrusted, apathy would not now reign."

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker praised Thompson for “setting an example for public service” in the state during his time in the executive’s chair.

“On behalf of the entire state of Illinois, MK and I offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends of former Gov. Jim Thompson,” Pritzker said. “As the longest-serving governor in Illinois history, ‘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. He will be remembered and revered as one of the titans in the history of state government.”

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider praised Thompson’s tenure as governor, including his work to keep the Chicago White Sox in the city and for his kindness and compassion as a leade.r

“Today the Illinois Republican Party mourns the loss of a great leader in Illinois’ storied history,” the statement read. “Gov. ‘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. 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.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot praised Thompson for his “bipartisan” approach to governing.

“Gov. Jim Thompson, a lifetime public servant and Illinois’ longest-serving governor, was a bipartisan leader and passionate advocate for our state. Both Amy and I send our sincerest condolences to the Thompson family, especially Jim’s wife Jayne and daughter Samantha,” Lightfoot said.

Due to restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, Thompson's family said they are unable to hold a public wake "that would accommodate all those who would want to express their condolences and respect for the Governor and his life."

The family said a memorial service will be scheduled at a later date and "other arrangements are pending."

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