Retiring Secretary of State Jesse White reflects on his legacy

Published: Nov. 29, 2022 at 8:42 PM CST
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SPRINGFIELD (WGEM) - Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White will leave office in January after serving 24 years in the role. The Gray TV Illinois Capitol Bureau spoke one-on-one with White while he worked in his Capitol office Tuesday.

Secretary White is one of the most well-known political figures in Illinois history and is still respected by people on both sides of the aisle. White said he is honored to have served Illinois.

“We have put in place a process by which individuals can come to the Secretary of State’s office and be treated in a highly respectful manner and receive the documents that they’re seeking in a timely manner,” White said.

White noted that a lot has changed in driver services facilities since he first took over the Secretary of State’s office. People can now avoid long lines at the DMV by setting up appointments over the phone or online. White said he is glad that his offices have the policy to allow seniors, disabled people, pregnant people and military veterans to get to the front of the line for services.

“I think it’s only fitting and proper for us to treat the ones who have contributed a lot to the success of this wonderful country of ours in a highly professional manner and in a timely way,” White said.

But some people may not know that White also served the country as a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division. White said that service to the people encouraged him to work as a state representative for 16 years in a bipartisan manner.

To this day, White is friends with Democrats and Republicans who work for a better Illinois. However, the 88-year-old knows that politics has become much more divisive since he first took office.

“They should sit down and figure out what is in the best interest of the people, not so much what is in the best interest of the party,” White said.

The Democrat said one of his best mentors was his minister, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As a young man attending college at Alabama State University, White learned valuable lessons about how to treat others with respect. White said listening to Dr. King made him into a better person and the man he is today.

“I have love in my heart for my fellow man and woman,” White said. “And the same things that I teach my kids I practice on a daily basis - love your fellow man and woman, never dislike someone because of their race, creed, or color.”

White plans to spend more time with his world-famous Jesse White Tumblers after he retires. White created the program in 1959 to help inner-city kids find a new hobby and positive outlook on life. White said he has seen over 18,500 people go through the tumbling program. As of his last count, White said only 15 tumblers got in trouble with the law.

“They cannot participate in anything that I’m involved with if they drink, smoke, swear, drop out of school, or dislike anyone because of their race, creed or color,” White said. “They have to get good grades in school and be involved in the educational process. These young people will say they’d rather be in trouble with the police than be in trouble with Mr. White. That’s how tough the love is.”

White also plans to help incoming Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias get settled in the office. He hopes Giannoulias comes into the role with a smile and let the office function around him.

“We’re going to leave this office in good shape for him,” White said. “But I know that he is the creative kind of person and he’s the type of person that is going to want to do other things. I wish him well and if he needs support I’ll be there for him. If he needs advice and counsel, I’ll be there for him. The people of the state of Illinois need good leadership and I think he’s the right person to do it right now.”

If you ever find yourself looking for a fun trivia fact about Illinois politicians, White said you can bring up his eight-year career as a professional baseball player. White tried out for the Chicago Cubs shortly after graduating from Alabama State. Even though White was up against 250 other potential Cubs, he was one of the five young men to make the team at Wrigley Field.

“Four days before going to spring training, I was drafted into the Army. So instead of going to spring training, I ended up going to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri,” White said. “After I finished my tour of duty in the military, I came back to Chicago, put my uniform in the closet, and flew off to Mesa, Arizona to play baseball for the Chicago Cubs organization.”

It’s safe to say he is still a devoted Cubs fan today.

“I think that they have the makings of a pretty good ball club this year,” White said. “And the same thing goes for the White Sox even though they lost Abreu. I don’t know how they did that one. But the bottom line is I wish both of them well. Cubs, Cardinals, and White Sox are my three favorite teams.”

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