Ex-Gov. Walker, imprisoned for illegal loans from Oak Brook S&L, dies
Former Illinois Gov. Dan Walker, who served 18 months in federal prison for receiving illegal loans from an Oak Brook savings and loan, died Wednesday of heart failure. He was 92.
"Ultimately, it was heart failure that got him," Walker's son, Will Walker of Crystal Lake, told The State Journal-Register.
Walker, who served as governor from 1973 to 1977, died shortly before 2 a.m. in at veterans hospital in Chula Vista, Calif.
Described as both "brilliant" and "phony" by those who knew and watched him, the Democrat bested the revered Paul Simon in the 1972 Democratic primary for governor, beat the incumbent Republican and, some believe with the benefit of a different direction, could have been the 1976 presidential nominee.
"He was brilliant, very -- even excessively -- ambitious," said former U.S. Sen. Adlai Stevenson III, whose first Senate campaign in 1970 Walker managed. "I can't say that he was terribly principled; he was very bent on winning at all costs."
In 1987, he pleaded guilty to obtaining nearly $1.4 million in fraudulent bank loans through the First American Savings and Loan Association in Oak Brook, which he headed. He served 18 months in a federal prison. After his release, he was placed on probation until the two loans were repaid.
He requested a pardon from President Bill Clinton in 2001, but it was not granted.
"A lot of people certainly know him as a public figure, but he was so much more than that to all of us," Will Walker told The State Journal-Register. "He was a great father. He was a great family man. He did a wonderful job raising seven kids, 22 grandchildren."
But Walker's passion translated into a tumultuous political career.
Walker was an early example of a new breed of Illinois politician -- someone who disdained traditional political organization -- and he won office in 1972 on the strength of his personality. As governor, however, he alienated Republicans and his fellow Democrats, managing to accomplish little.
In 1968, Walker headed a team of more than 200 people who interviewed more than 1,400 witnesses and studied FBI reports and footage of the 1968 Democratic convention riots for President Lyndon B. Johnson. The report, later known as the Walker Report, described the violence as a police riot and recommended officers be prosecuted.
The report angered then-Mayor Richard J. Daley and sparked an antagonism that Walker repeatedly fueled throughout his tenure in Springfield, prompting the Chicago boss to back a 1976 primary candidate and send Walker to a humiliating defeat. That opened the door in November for a victorious Republican, James Thompson, who served a record 14 years at the helm.
"He did many great things and many accomplishments in his life. ... He was just a wonderful, passionate man," Walker's son said.
After leaving office, Walker became the head of an Oak Brook savings and loan, where he cut corners and used the business to support a lavish lifestyle. Walker pleaded guilty to fraud and perjury and was sentenced to federal prison in 1987.
He later wrote eloquently about the trauma of life behind bars.
"The only spot of color out in the prison yard looms before me: a tall water tower painted red and white," Walker wrote in "The Maverick and the Machine: Governor Dan Walker Tells His Story."
"It offers an alternative to my misery," he wrote. "I could, if things get any worse, climb it and jump before anyone could stop me."
A little-known corporate attorney, he grabbed voters' attention in 1971 by walking across Illinois for 116 days, sleeping in farmhouses along the way, and wearing his trademark red bandanna.
"Government is out of touch with the people," Walker would proclaim in his speeches that featured promises to hold down taxes and increase education spending.
He went on to beat the Republican incumbent who had established Illinois' first income tax.
Former Illinois Gaming Board chairman Aaron Jaffe was a House lawmaker when Walker took office.
"He was very bright," said Jaffe said. "He could have gone further in politics. I think he could have been a presidential candidate had he not been so confrontational."
Walker maintained that he tried to work with the political establishment but was rejected from the outset.
"I was disliked by the professionals in both parties holding leadership positions as well as by the lower-echelon party regulars from Chicago," he wrote. "Daley and the Chicago machine certainly did not want to see me succeed. The legislative leaders of both parties made no secret of their desire to 'get Dan Walker,' as they openly put it."
Former Gov. Pat Quinn often recalled Walker as a mentor, and he got his start in politics working on Walker's 1972 campaign. Walker later gave him his first government job. In a statement, Quinn focused on Walker's military service in the U.S. Navy and noted his "patriotism."
"He fervently believed in the power of democracy and the importance of including everyone in our democracy," Quinn said.
Gov. Bruce Rauner issued the following statement on the death Walker: "Diana and I are saddened to learn of the passing of former Governor Dan Walker. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time."
After his retirement, Walker became an avid writer, according to family. He wrote seven books, including a memoir and a novel.
Walker is survived by his wife and seven children. Funeral services are pending.
• The Associated Press contributed to this report.