CHICAGO — Jesse White tells a story about being a black college student from Chicago who arrived in Alabama in the segregated South of the 1950s, and casually claimed an open seat at the front of a Montgomery city bus. having had.

The driver, who was white, turned and held up a sign that the front section was reserved for white passengers. “can not you read?” the driver asked.

“I said, ‘I paid you your rent,'” said Mr. White, now 88, who will retire on Monday as Illinois secretary of state. “My job is to pay for the ride,” she told the driver. “Your job is to drive the bus. I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ And he said, ‘Well, we’ll fix you up.'”

As things turned out, Mr. White was able to get where he needed to go until the bus reached his destination city, where he was safely dropped off.

Nearly seven decades after that bus ride, Mr. White is looking back on a career that has included a soldier, professional baseball player and teacher, as well as nearly half a century in public office. Along the way, he’s generally managed to get where he wants to go, making unexpected allies and remarkably few enemies in the murky world of Illinois politics, all the while avoiding major public scandal in a state notorious for corruption.

Mr. White was perhaps the best-known and best-loved officeholder in Illinois to overcome it all. Looking back, he said his approach to governing exemplified a kinder, more flexible politics that could be the antidote to today’s partisan rancor.

“You can’t walk into a room and pick up all the marbles off the table — you have to leave something for someone else,” Mr. White, a Democrat, said at his office in downtown Chicago, where decades of plaques, Photos and sports memorabilia were mounted on the wall. “You have to find a way to reach a happy medium.”

As the first elected secretary of state in 1998, already well into his 60s, Mr. White often received more votes than any other statewide candidate. He once carried every Illinois county, even conservative ones with natural suspicions of Chicago Democrats.

It helped that Mr. White had spent part of his childhood in central Illinois, that he had served in general assembly and county office, and, above all, that he was widely known as the founder of Jesse White Tumblers, a youth gymnastics team she started in 1959 that became a mainstay of Midwestern halftime shows and parades. Team members, many drawn from struggling Chicago neighborhoods, must maintain good grades and stay away from gangs, drugs, and alcohol.

“Everybody feels good about Jesse White tumblers,” said Jim Edgar, a Republican who served with Mr. White in the Illinois House of Representatives in the 1970s. “He deservedly gets the credit.”

Mr. Edgar said the Illinois secretary of state post, which he once held himself, was particularly well suited for political longevity, given its general lack of built-in opportunities for hot-button political fare and name recognition. For example, Mr. White’s name is written at the top of all 8.9 million Illinois driver’s licenses in circulation.

Unlike most of the country, the Secretary of State in Illinois does not administer elections, but is in charge of issuing drivers’ licenses, among other duties, During his tenure, the longest in the state’s history, Mr White has been a strong supporter of registering drivers organ donors, Political associates said the job also gave him an opportunity to shine as a personality.

“He’s a very friendly person, very nice—polite, very friendly, not confrontational,” said Tony Preckwinkle, a Democrat who is chairman of the Board of Commissioners in Cook County, which includes Chicago.

Attorney General Kwame Raoul, who campaigned with White in his first bid for statewide office, recalled seeing him easily joking with strangers and sharing his personal cellphone number.

Mr. Raoul, a fellow Democrat, said, “He would pull me aside and just say, ‘Make yourself accessible everywhere, talk to as many people as you can, hand out as many cards as you can.

When Mr. Raoul asked for help campaigning in churches in Chicago, he said that Mr. White organized a travel schedule so intense that he could only stay 10 to 15 minutes at each service.

Mr White said his approach to politics – focus on the people, build relationships across party lines, don’t expect to get whatever you want – could prove useful in today’s hyperpartisan climate, especially formally in Washington, where he spoke about the actions of former President Donald J. Trump had put the future of American democracy in question.

Mr White inherited an office with a scandalous history of corruption: office staff were caught Selling Commercial Driver’s License, and his Republican predecessor, George H.W. Ryan was eventually convicted of federal crimes related to his tenure as Secretary of State and Governor. But in his six terms as secretary, White has managed to avoid a similar decline – no small feat in Illinois.

Nevertheless, Mr. White made headlines in 2009 when he refused to put his signature on the appointment letter of Roland Burris, who was nominated for the Senate seat that Barack Obama was vacating when he became president. Mr. White said he did not sign because the appointee’s governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, was accused of trying to trade the seat for personal gain. A solution was later worked out – Mr. White’s office provided a document with a state seal and the secretary’s largely fabricated signature – and Mr. Burris was allowed to rejoin the Senate.

The uproar over that seat again came into limelight in 2018 when Chicago Tribune Exposed JB Pritzker, who was later elected governor, named Mr. White to Mr. Blagojevich in a phone call recorded by the FBI. , Mr. White would be the “least objectionable” choice.

comment was seized as offensive By some politicians, however, Mr. White has repeatedly defended and praised Mr. Pritzker, a Democrat who was elected to a second term as governor in November. Mr. Pritzker, who declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article, said in a statement that “working with Jesse has been the honor of a lifetime.”

As his term came to an end, Mr. White, who did not seek re-election, spoke openly about the racism he faced as a youth.

He told of living with black families while his white teammates were put up in hotels while playing minor-league baseball. he described for Chicago Sun-Times And WBEZ How, as a player in the Chicago Cubs organization, he was told that he had been seen having lunch with a white female reporter whom team officials mistook for his girlfriend. that and told the Chicago Tribune that he discussed with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose church he attended in Montgomery, Ala., the arrest of Rosa Parks for refusing to walk in the back of a bus.

But not at all, what Dr. King said resonated with young Mr. White. When Dr. King talked about his plan to dismantle Montgomery’s transit system, he described his philosophy of nonviolence, of turning the other cheek.

“I raised my hand and said: ‘Dr. King, I’m from Chicago. You know, we don’t operate like that,'” Mr. White recalled to The Times. “He said: ‘Jesse, just follow the script. Everything will be fine.'”

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