It was the fall of 1964. I was a first-year law student at Northwestern University. We would have four courses that year, all four running both semesters. One was criminal law. That area of the law had more familiarity to the average student than some of the more arcane ones like torts and contracts. We had all seen examples of criminal law, be it in reading history or watching TV shows, and experiencing real-life events happening about us. For example, that year, Richard Speck killed those eight nurses only a few miles from our school.
We learned the names of other professors and what subjects they would teach us in later courses. One was quite young, having graduated from Northwestern Law in 1959, and was only eight years older than we were. He taught upper levels of criminal law.
By our second year, three of us had left the dorm and moved into an area north of the city of Chicago. It was only half a mile from Lake Michigan and Lake Shore Drive, but deep enough inland to have affordable rent. Closer to the lake were much nicer apartments. Near us was a Kroger, where we shopped for our groceries. One day while waiting in the checkout line, I realized I was standing next to that young professor, James Thompson. He actually recognized my roommate, and we were invited for a drink at his Lake Shore apartment where he lived by himself. Casual but nice.
Then, my third year of classes, I took an advanced criminal law seminary taught by Professor Thompson. Chicago was in a real state of flux with gangs, anti-war demonstrations and unrest. Professor Thompson had a most unusual requirement for completing his seminar — two Saturday nights in the rear seat of a Chicago Police unit. More than that, we were to go to 63rd and Cottage Grove, deep in the south side where the Black Stone Rangers and other gangs held forth.
It was late October when I had my first Saturday night. I met my unit at a police headquarters and was assigned to two rather young officers. As I entered the squad car, I was instructed. “If we take fire, I want your ass on the floor of that back seat!” Welcome to the big city Mr. Farm Boy from Clifton.
After several hours of patrol, we stopped for coffee. By then, we had talked a lot and felt comfortable with each other. As I exited the squad car, I inquired just how much BS the taking fire was. One of the officers took me around the squad car and said, “We had this car repainted two months ago.” We then counted the five bullet holes in their squad car. Those two nights showed me so much I never knew about the other side of Chicago.
In late January 1967, the largest snowfall in the city’s history occurred in a few short hours. Everything was closed. The city was paralyzed. Our phone rang the second night. “Hello?’ “This is Big Jim.” “Yes, Jim” I responded. “Out of gin,” came the reply. ”We’ve got some gin,” I responded. He then confided, “I have an airline stewardess here from next door who is very nervous and only drinks gin.” With that, our future governor walked some six blocks through that 3-plus feet of snow to get my gin.
After I returned to Illinois to practice law, I became somewhat reacquainted with Jim. After his teaching, he became the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. As such, he even prosecuted and convicted former Gov. Otto Kerner Jr. over racetrack scandals. In 1975, he gave up that position and by 1977, was the governor of Illinois. He would be elected four times, serving 16 years as our governor. In 1990, he returned to the practice of law with a large firm in Chicago.
Since George Ryan was his lieutenant governor for many of those years, Gov. Thompson often came to Kankakee and Iroquois counties, and I would see him. While it wasn’t a close friendship, it was a privilege for me to know him so many years. Only two or three years ago, I had a case where the other side was represented by Winston and Strawn, his firm. One day, as I was talking on the telephone to one of the younger partners about a case we had against each other, he stopped and said, “Big Jim just walked by and told me to tell you ‘Hi.’” I was amazed at how he knew so much about that firm and would still remember me.
Gov. Thompson was a most interesting man. He was a Republican, but had some rather progressive ideas for our state. He was clearly pro-choice, pro-union, pro-spending and tough on crime. I am sure many Republicans thought he had strayed a bit too far to the left, but they continually supported him. It is hard to imagine with the history of Illinois governors over the years that there would not be one scandal during those years. Illinois was strong and well run.
Big Jim will leave a legacy of good government with quick responses and clear direction. He was working in his 80s at his law firm, still managing the young lawyers not prepared for the real world. How he became a professor at such a tender age is not known to me, but Northwestern could not have done better.
I believe that much of my drive to become a trial lawyer and enter the criminal law field went back to his classes, and clearly our backseat adventures with the Chicago Police. I actually chose the other side of the aisle, entering the world of criminal defense and eventually becoming Iroquois County’s first public defender.
Probably the most interesting fact of the whole relationship was that I was invited to all four of his inaugurations by Gov. Thompson. I wonder whether that ever would have happened if Chicago hadn’t been bombarded by snow or if we didn’t have a bottle of gin when he called. Rest in peace, Big Jim; you’ve earned it.