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Former Illinois Gov. James ‘Big Jim’ Thompson dies at 84

Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson
Former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson in 2007 in Chicago. Thompson, known as “Big Jim” during a long career that made him the state’s longest-serving chief executive, has died.
(Mark Elias / Associated Press)

Former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, known as “Big Jim” during a long career that made him the state’s longest-serving chief executive, has died. He was 84.

Thompson died Friday night in Chicago, his wife, Jayne, told the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. The Tribune reported that Thompson had recently experienced heart problems.

“It was very sudden,” Jayne Thompson told the Tribune. “I was told that his heart simply stopped.”

James Thompson, a Republican from Chicago, was first elected governor in 1976 and served four terms before leaving office in 1991. A moderate, he managed the state through recession years in the 1980s. He also helped put together a plan to help the Chicago White Sox get a new stadium to head off a potential move out of state.

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“As the longest-serving governor in Illinois history, ‘Big Jim’ was known to treat people he encountered with kindness and decency,” Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement Saturday. “Jim dedicated himself to building positive change for Illinois, and he set an example for public service of which Illinoisans should be proud.”

Before becoming governor, Thompson rose to prominence as a prosecutor, making a name for himself fighting public corruption — a reputation he carried into his career in politics.

“Gov. Jim Thompson stood for cleaning up corruption in Illinois politics and government,” former Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat who left office in 2015, said in a statement.

While working in the Cook County state’s attorney’s office in the early 1960s, Thompson prosecuted Lenny Bruce after the comedian held up a photograph of a woman’s breast while on stage at a Chicago nightclub.

After he was appointed U.S. attorney for the Northern Illinois District by President Nixon, Thompson became known for anti-corruption cases, including the prosecution of Democratic former Gov. Otto Kerner Jr., by then a federal appeals judge.

Thompson and his staff uncovered massive voter fraud in 1972, an effort that led to 83 indictments and 66 convictions or guilty pleas. He headed the prosecution that led to the conviction of a powerful Chicago alderman and took part in the investigation of Republican Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who eventually pleaded no contest to tax evasion.

Thompson was honored in 1993 when the state government building in downtown Chicago was named after him. He also later served as a member of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States to examine the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“He was a great guy, no question about that,” said Republican former Gov. George Ryan, a longtime friend who held the office from 1999 to 2003.

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But Thompson also made headlines when, as a leader of the law firm Winston & Strawn, he agreed to defend Ryan without pay in a corruption case that eventually landed Ryan in prison.


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