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Jesse White, Illinois secretary of state retiring after 24 years, reflects on his career


Jesse White retired this week as Illinois secretary of state. Retired in Illinois - he wasn't indicted or defeated. He's just 88 years old and has been secretary of state since 1999. He's the longest-serving person ever in that office, the first Black person to hold that office, and as popular a public official as the state that's produced Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey, for that matter, has ever had. He's been a champion of youth and literacy programs and tumbling - we'll get to that. Secretary of State White joins us from Chicago. Thanks so much for being with us.

JESSE WHITE: Scott, glad to be on board.

SIMON: You know, I am looking at my mother's state ID card. She didn't have a driver's license like me. But it's the secretary of state that issues those ID cards. And it just occurred to me - there are millions of people who will be looking at their driver's licenses or state ID cards and wondering, wait, why isn't Jesse White's name here?

WHITE: (Laughter) Well, I've had the great pleasure of serving as the Illinois secretary of state for the past 24 years. I want to thank the people of this wonderful state for allowing me to serve. But prior to becoming the secretary of state, I was a state lawmaker. And then, I was the Cook County recorder of deeds for six years, played professional baseball, jumped out of airplanes, taught school, and coached a team called Jesse White Tumblers. And yet I'm not 150 years old.

SIMON: Let me follow up one by one. Responsibilities of secretary of state does not include elections, unlike many other states, but it does include driver's licenses. And let me put this nicely - a couple of your predecessors made the most of that, didn't they?

WHITE: Yes, they did. And in fact, one ended up going to prison.

SIMON: Yeah. And the other had shoeboxes full of cash discovered after he died - Paul Powell.

WHITE: Yeah. Well, when I buy my shoes, I buy them in bags.


SIMON: Well, I have to ask 'cause in periodic surveys, Illinois - I don't have to tell you this - is usually No. 1 or 2 in the nation for having the most, you know, indicted and convicted public officials. Is there something in Illinois that lends itself to that? What's your feeling after all these years?

WHITE: Well, sometimes, they yield to temptation. And I've been in office for almost - well, over 50 years, to be exact. And I believe that when you take on a job, you should take on the responsibility that goes with it. And you have to be at your duty station every day on time to start your duties to the best of your ability. And honesty in government is a thing that I pride myself on. And I just think it's a violation of all of us and human decency for an individual who has been elected to an office - yet is motivated by greed.

SIMON: We live in a time of such political division - racial and socioeconomic division. How have you managed to be such a popular figure with people from all parties?

WHITE: Well, I'm a personable person. When I see individuals on the street or in the store, on the bus or wherever, I speak to them. And then, I also give my personal telephone number to individuals. So if they have a problem, I want to be able to assist them. When you take on a job, you should take on the responsibility that goes with it. And then, when you ask individuals to come out to support you, you should be there with them no matter what their problem is.

SIMON: Yeah. Secretary White, I have been to so many functions all over Illinois, and the Jesse White Tumblers are there. Tell us about this program and how it's changed lives.

WHITE: Well, when I was a youngster working for the Chicago Park District, my park supervisor asked me to put on a gym show. And from that one gym show in December 1959 came this team called the Jesse White Tumblers. We've had over 18,500 young people to come through the program. I have strict rules and regulations. Young people have to be in school on time every day and have - what I mean by that is to get the best education possible. And then, they have to obey my rules and regulations pertaining to how they feel about their fellow man and woman - cannot dislike anyone because of race, creed or color. And then, of course, we want our young people to respect the laws that have been established by this country and be a positive force in society.

SIMON: I remember being at the opening of the new bakery of Eli's Chicago Cheesecake, and the Tumblers were there.

WHITE: Scott, they had a kind of cake that was about 10 feet in diameter and about 8 feet tall. And we did a somersault over the cake. It was called the over-the-cake routine.

SIMON: I remember that. Do the Jesse White tumblers go on even though you're retiring?

WHITE: I'm at the headquarters right now as we speak. We have a center called the Jesse Community Center and Field House. Anything that, in fact, we do here at the center, we're involved with what is called tough love. We love our young people, but we've got to be tough on them.

SIMON: You have a motto in public life, don't you?

WHITE: Yes, I do. Do something good for someone every day. That's how I run my life. Those things and more have helped me to be where I am today. And that will continue to follow me till I'm no longer here.

SIMON: Jesse White, Illinois's now former secretary of state, thanks so much for being with us.

WHITE: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.