Monday, August 20, 2007

Jerry Owens, RIP

Jerry Owens, 64, of Springfield did not fit the stereotype of Illinois politics—he was honest, genuine, smart and not in it to get rich. He also was the anti-preener. He hated phonies and posers.

Gene Callahan, the legendary former aide to Alan Dixon and Paul Simon, perfectly captured Owens' attitude toward political arrogance in a Saturday story in the Springfield-based State Journal-Register about Owens' death the day before.

"He got right down to the nitty-gritty. There was no phony bologna about him. He was tough, but he was kind," Callahan said, adding that one thing Owens didn't like were people who thought they were better than everyone else.

"He was an expert on puncturing pomposity," Callahan said. "In other words, he didn't care for pompous people. He'd puncture their balloons, and I think that's an attribute."
I will join Callahan as a pall bearer for Jerry tomorrow in Springfield. Gene is a good Democrat and I'm a Republican. Jerry didn't care about your party, he cared about good government. That's another way Jerry differed with the Illinois stereotype.

On a personal level, I will miss Jerry greatly. We worked closely together at the Attorney General's office for eight years and stayed in touch since. A bunch of Jerry's good friends—Gene, Al Manning, Luke Carey and I all went to a St. Louis Cardinals' game in St. Louis last year. It was a great day for a bunch of politicos.

There was nobody like Jerry. He was a true Illinois original. He was a great athlete (all-state basketball player, superb fast-pitch softball pitcher), journalist and government official, but that just begins to describe him. Jerry operated on his own clock. He arrived at work before 6 a.m. He arrived at events early, and left early. He was Google before there was Google, at least when it came to Illinois. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Illinois politics, baseball, movies and literature. I could call him from anywhere in the state and he could give me directions to the nearest restaurant, government building or newspaper office.

He had great political radar. He could immediately sense the good public servants and the bad ones—and he nearly always was right. He provided great advice to public officials on how to do things the right way, and in a way that comported with Illinois history and tradition. He knew how to play political hard ball when necessary, but that's not what drove him. He told me many times that his happiest days were prior to his government career when he was political columnist for the Springfield paper, hunting down information and scoops.

Jerry loved baseball and the Cardinals and was able to attend the deciding game of the World Series last year. If there's any justice in the world, today, on the day of his visitation, the Cardinals will beat the Cubs. Rest in peace, my friend.

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