From the sweltering of Mississippi’s “Freedom Summer” in 1964 to Washington’s marbled corridors of power to the rough-and-tumble of Illinois politics, he devoted his nearly 50-year career to making American democracy work better.
Lawrence N. Hansen, vice president of the Joyce Foundation in Chicago since 1994 and former aide to former Vice President Walter Mondale and U.S. Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III, died of cancer at his home in River Forest on Nov. 15, 2010. He was 69.
As program officer of the Joyce Foundation’s Money and Politics Program, one of his signature achievements was to help create an infrastructure of campaign reform groups in the Midwest. The program also engaged scholars and practitioners in electoral reform from across the nation to help support the work of The Midwest Democracy Network, a coalition of state-based reform groups in Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota funded by Joyce.
“Larry Hansen did more than any other individual to nurture the development of new organizations, programs and activities dedicated to improving the integrity and effectiveness of American elections,” said Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a national expert on political reform.
Hansen focused most recently on reform of redistricting, the process by which state legislatures redraw political boundaries after each U.S. Census. But he saw redistricting reform as just one piece of a broader reform agenda that also included campaign financing, judicial elections, government transparency and accountability and other areas vital to a well-functioning democracy.
He displayed his “puckish” sense of humor in a January 2010 memo to friends and colleagues notifying them that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer that had spread to his brain.
Referring to upcoming chemotherapy, he said, “I have been assured on good authority that folks eager to see me without my familiar ‘comb-over’ will have a chance before long: I trust it will be becoming.”
“Larry brought a great sense of humanity, leavened with humor, to every task,” said Ellen Alberding, president of the Joyce Foundation. “He was a joy to work with: kind, knowledgeable, opinionated and passionate.”
Before joining Joyce in 1994, Hansen served as research professor and director of the Democracy Agenda Project at George Washington University’s Center for Communications Studies, and as vice president of the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies.
Hansen served as Mondale’s sole on-the-road companion, political advisor and general troubleshooter in 1982-83, in the months leading up to Mondale’s formal announcement that he would seek the presidency in 1984.
“We traveled the campaign trail together all over this country. We talked about everything. Larry was gifted, funny, wise and competitive. He also liked to order, on a daily basis, an adequate supply of sweet rolls,” Mondale said. “He had this gift of calming down matters that had gotten out of control. Everybody liked him.”
From 1974 to 1981, Hansen was special assistant and then administrative assistant to Sen. Stevenson. In the latter position, he supervised a 30-person staff in Washington, Chicago and Springfield.
“His life was devoted to public service,” said Stevenson. “For Larry, public service was more than a citizen’s duty. It was also an intellectual challenge and occupation. He had a wry sense of humor, a capacious memory and a talent for articulation that made good use of his political experience for the amusement and edification of his many friends.”
Hansen’s career was characterized by a desire to help the underdog — whether in the U.S. or in Peru, where he worked with fellow students to build the first modern sanitation facilities in two barrios of Lima in 1962.
Much to the consternation of his parents, given the risks involved, Hansen drove to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to work with local civil rights activists and lawyers to register African Americans to vote. What became known as “Freedom Summer” was remembered for its historic achievements — but also for the brutal murders of three civil rights workers by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Hansen, who grew up in Elgin, earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science from the University of Illinois, where he served as Student Senate president. After graduating, he interned as a staff assistant in the Illinois General Assembly. It was there that he met Stevenson, who was elected with a distinguished group of other reformers in the now famous 1964 at-large election. When he decided to run for state treasurer in 1966, Stevenson asked him to head up an ambitious and successful youth operation, which played a prominent role in the successful campaign.
During that campaign, Hansen met his future wife, Margaret “Marge” Rybicki, to whom he was married for 41 years. He also met his lifelong friend, public affairs executive Rick Jasculca.
“Larry was passionate, committed, charismatic, and his enthusiasm was contagious,” Jasculca recalled. “It is not a reach to say categorically that he helped launch an entire generation of political activists, myself included.”
He was a member of the board of the University YMCA at the University of Illinois and of the Donors Forum, and chair of the Advisory Board of Illinois Issues.
In addition to his wife, Larry Hansen is survived by his mother, Jeanne Hansen; his sisters, Janis (David) Duewel and Candace; his brother Lance (Sue); his brother- and sister-in-law, John and Patricia Brown; and many nieces and nephews.
Visitation will be held from 3 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 18 at Cumberland Chapels, 8300 W. Lawrence, in Norridge. Funeral Mass will be celebrated at 10 a.m., Friday, Nov. 19 at St. Thecla Catholic Church, 6725 W. Devon, Chicago.
Memorials may be sent to: University YMCA at the University of Illinois, 1001 S. Wright St., Champaign, IL 61820, or to Illinois Issues, HRB 10, University of Illinois Springfield, One University Plaza, Springfield, IL 62703-5407.
Submitted by William Strong