'Tireless and incorruptible': Former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan dies at 76

Former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, who battled through professional setbacks and personal tragedies to become one of the state's most respected political leaders, has died at 76.

The suburban-raised Ryan, who served two terms as the state's top lawyer and was defeated in his 2002 bid for governor by Rod Blagojevich, died peacefully at home Sunday after several lengthy illnesses, according to a statement from his family.

"From the time I met him until his death, Jimmy always was striving to do the right thing and to help people," said his wife of 54 years, Marie. "That was who he was and he was very successful at it."

Born in Chicago and raised in the Villa Park home built by his father and hero, Edward, Ryan displayed pugilistic proficiency in high school, winning a Golden Gloves amateur boxing title at age 17. In 2013, Ryan was in the corner of his grandson Joey when he won the Chicago Golden Gloves.

A devout Catholic, Ryan graduated from St. Procopius Academy, now Benet Academy in Lisle, before attending the neighboring Illinois Benedictine College, where he received a bachelor's degree in political science. He later earned his law degree from the Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Shortly after graduation, he married his high school sweetheart, Marie Pahls. They had six children.

Ryan joined the DuPage County state's attorney's office in 1971 and five years later ran for state's attorney. He lost to fellow Republican J. Michael Fitzsimmons in the GOP primary but ran again in 1984, this time defeating Fitzsimmons in the primary and winning election the following November. He would earn reelection in 1988 and 1992.

Ryan's tenure in DuPage included the prosecutions of Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez for the 1983 abduction and killing of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. The two men initially were convicted and sentenced to death, but after several appeals and two retrials each, both were exonerated and another man ultimately was convicted of the girl's slaying.

As state's attorney, Ryan established himself as an advocate for children, creating the state's first center for victims of child abuse and cracking down on deadbeat parents.

He first ran for attorney general in 1990, narrowly losing to Roland Burris. When Burris made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1994, Ryan ran again for attorney general and won. He was easily elected to a second term in 1998.

As attorney general, Ryan advocated for anti-crime legislation, including "truth-in-sentencing" measures that limit how much time inmates can have shaved off their prison terms, and requires those convicted of murder to serve 100% of their sentences. He also joined a nationwide lawsuit against tobacco companies that resulted in the state receiving $9.1 billion.

Ryan wasn't afraid to upset the GOP establishment during his years as attorney general, so much so that some influential Republican power brokers quietly backed and raised campaign money for Blagojevich ahead of the 2002 governor's race.

"Although it was his life's work, Jim never really felt comfortable in the field of politics," Stephen Culliton, a former chief judge in DuPage County and a 50-year friend of Ryan's, said in the family statement. "He always strived to do the right thing and to help make life a little better for others. And when the inevitable conflicts arose between the politically beneficial thing and the 'right' thing, he always did the right thing. His honesty was a beacon for all of us who worked with him. He will be greatly missed."

John Pearman, a longtime top aide for Ryan in the attorney general's office, called him "as good a public servant as Illinois has ever known."

"He never stopped trying to help people - women, children, crime victims," Pearman added. "He was tireless and incorruptible."

After his term as attorney general ended in 2003, Ryan resumed his law practice and founded The Center for Civic Leadership at his alma mater, which in 1996 became Benedictine University.

"I love government. I love public service," Ryan told the Daily Herald's Burt Constable in 2009.

Ryan's life also was beset by personal tragedy.

His wife nearly died in 1997, the same year their 12-year-old daughter, Annie, died from an undiagnosed brain tumor. A decade later, his 24-year-old son, Patrick, died from a self-inflicted gunshot.

Ryan himself had several bouts with cancer, including a battle with lymphoma that occurred while he was running for governor.

"Ryan endured the death of two of his six children, nearly lost his beloved wife of 54 years to a heart attack, beat back cancer three times, and successfully recovered from heart surgery," the family's statement reads. "Because he was a public figure, most of this pain was shouldered in the public eye, and his grace under duress was an inspiration to thousands of Illinoisans, many of whom he stayed in touch with over the years."

Ryan's children, John, Jim, Matt, and Amy, described him Sunday as "a wonderful father and grandfather, who, through example, taught us how to handle life's greatest joys, and most difficult losses, with dignity and grace."

"For all that he accomplished during his career, he will be most remembered for the way he lived his life. Family, faith, and service to others defines the remarkable life of our father," they said.

Current Attorney General Kwame Raoul issued a statement Sunday night saying Ryan will forever be known for his strength and dedication to service.

"May his courage and selflessness in the face of adversity serve as inspiration to all," he said.

Funeral information was not immediately available Sunday night.

Former Republican gubernatorial candidate and Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan died Sunday. He was 76. Daily Herald File Photo, 2008
Former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan and his wife, Marie, in Elmhurst in 2011. Daily Herald File Photo, 2011
Former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan gets his picture taken with his then 4-year-old grandson, Michael, at their Elmhurst home. Daily Herald File Photo, 2011
Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.