Illinois’ longest-serving governor, James ‘Big Jim’ Thompson, dies

Former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson died Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, at age 84. File Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI

Aug. 16 (UPI) — Illinois’ longest-serving governor, James Thompson, has died, his family announced. He was 84.

His family told WLS-TV in Chicago he died Friday evening while he was going through rehabilitation at Shirley Ryan Ability Lab in Streeterville. He had been having heart problems.

His cause of death was not immediately known.

Affectionately known as “Big Jim” because he stood 6 feet 6 inches tall, he was first elected in 1976 and served four consecutive terms as a Republican governor until he left the office in 1991.

“On behalf of the entire state of Illinois, MK (my wife) and I offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends of former Governor Jim Thompson,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker tweeted. “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.”

Thompson’s legacy included restoring Navy Pier, keeping the White Sox Chicago’s South Side team and opening a downtown office building that bears his name.

Prior to becoming governor, he served as a federal prosecutor appointed by then-President Richard Nixon.

During his time as a federal prosecutor, he convicted former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner over a scandal involving a horse racetrack stock.

After leaving the governor’s office, Thompson joined the law firm Winston & Strawn, where he became chairman in 1993.

Regional Transit Authority Chairman and former state Sen. Kirk Dillard, who served as a top aide to Thompson as governor, praised him as a career mentor.

“Jim launched the careers of so many of us,” Dillard said.

Thompson is survived by his wife, Jayne, his daughter, Samantha, and a granddaughter, age 4.

“The Thompson family is mourning the loss of a wonderful husband, father and grandfather,” a family statement said. “Jim Thompson’s love and devotion to his family mirrored his lifelong dedication to his beloved state of Illinois.”

The family added that due to COVID-19 restrictions, it would not hold a public wake and a memorial service would be scheduled at a later date.

As governor, Thompson was able to work well with Democratic politicians.

“Loretta and I extend our sympathies to Jayne and Samantha on the passing of Gov. Jim Thompson,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., tweeted. “We were political adversaries yet personal friends back in the day when that was not uncommon. Try as we might, we Democrats just could not beat Big Jim.”


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