Not everyone can remember the moment their life changed and where they were when it happened. But I can.
It was a steamy Sunday afternoon in August 1981 at the Illinois State Fair, and I was a week from finishing an internship in Gov. Jim Thompson’s press office.
The Governor, who loved the State Fair, was stopping at exhibitor booths, saying hello to vendors and visitors, and taking his daughter on carnival rides as he made his way around the sprawling fairgrounds.
The regular press office staff had the day off. As the short-term kid on the team, I had media duties for what should be a slow news day. At one point, Thompson peered down at me.
“Prescott,” he said with a smile, “what are you doing with the rest of your life?”
“Uh, well,” I stammered, “I start a master’s in journalism program in a few weeks after my internship ends.”
“You could do that,” he said.
He paused, smiled again, and said the words that would change the direction of my life: “Or you could talk to me tomorrow.”
The conversation the next day was brief because when Big Jim asked you to work for him full-time, the answer was yes.
But that change of plans gave me the opportunity to work for and with the longest-serving governor in Illinois history, who died on Aug. 14 at age 84.
The Governor had a strong connection to Oak Park. Jayne Thompson, his wife, is an OPRF High School graduate, and his parents lived in Oak Park when he was in office. I was born and still live in Oak Park and my wife, Sally, and I raised our five children here.
When I got word of his death early the morning after he died and a request from Mrs. Thompson to handle media duties for her and the family, the memories of working for him and the experiences that shaped my life came flooding back:
How he never demonized the other side and was always willing to take a call and make a call to move Illinois forward.
How he will be remembered for keeping the White Sox in Chicago, Navy Pier, roads and bridges and buildings across the 102 counties in Illinois.
How his lasting legacy will be the hundreds of people who worked for him.
How he was the best at the three parts of being governor: politics, process and policy.
How he loved parades and worked them from curb to curb. And then backward. Then did it again. No walking and waving from the yellow stripe or riding in a convertible.
I didn’t know it that afternoon at the State Fair, but working for Gov. Thompson was an opportunity to see firsthand what set him apart from governors who served before him and those who followed. It also explains why the tributes that came from both sides of the political aisle were genuine and full of respect.
It’s fitting and accurate that another Oak Parker, Senate President Don Harmon, said in his statement, “No one enjoyed being governor more than Jim Thompson.”
Here’s to you, JRT.
Thank you for the opportunity of a lifetime.
Jim Prescott is an Oak Park-based public affairs consultant who worked for Gov. Jim Thompson from 1981 to 1988.