A few years ago I wrote a series of about 200 profiles of famous people from Illinois who in general were a source of pride to the state history in my opinion. I still get a lot of satisfaction when I receive emails from Illinois students who write to me to say they found the series helpful to them in writing biographical reports for school.
When I am asked to name the two best governors of Illinois in the last 100 years, I like to point to two positive role models, one a Republican, and one a Democrat. Both were honest reformers who were greatly respected when they were in office. The Republican was Gov. Frank O. Lowden pictured above right who led the state during World War I and served in office from 1917 to 1921. Gov. Lowden reformed the corrupt Illinois GOP organization and raised troops for the national war effort.
The Democrat was Gov. Henry Horner pictured at right who led the state through the Great Depression and served from 1933 to his death in 1940. Frank Lowden was highly regarded not only in Illinois but also in national Republican politics. He was twice a serious candidate for President of the United States at the 1920 GOP Convention in Chicago and the 1928 GOP Convention in Kansas City. He lost in 1920 after an infamous back-room deal at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago to draft Sen. Warren Harding of Ohio.
Many GOP national leaders later regretted that Lowden was not nominated when President Harding was disgraced by two scandals involving private profiteering by he Director of Veterans Affairs and the dishonest lease of the Teapot Dome oil reserves in Wyoming by the Department of the Interior. In 1928, Lowden lost to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover.
Gov. Henry Horner was not involved in national Democratic politics very much but he was widely admired in Illinois when he became was the first Jewish governor after the 1932 election. He was a scholar of Abraham Lincoln who had a large collection of books about Lincoln. He often fought hard with the Chicago Democratic machine of his era, led by boss Pat Nash and Mayor Ed Kelly, over patronage and state contracts when he came into office in January 1933. Gov. Horner knew that state had to control the budget in order to survive the Depression and he was legendary for his frugal financial management as he looked for any conceivable way to cut state spending. Even so, Horner had to sign the first state sales tax at only two percent to raise money for welfare relief and other needs. But the best story about Horner's famous frugality is when he first arrived in his new office in January 1933. Horner's secretary found several cartons of stationery left over from his GOP predecessor, Gov. Louis Emmerson. Horner insisted that his secretary must not order any new stationery unless she crossed out the name of Emmerson and wrote in Horner until all the old stationery was used up. He involved himself in all sorts of ways to save money including letting prisoners grow their own food at state prisons and using carbon filament light bulbs to save on electricity and make the bulbs last longer. But because the Kelly-Nash machine in Chicago got angry at Horner for abolishing patronage for prison guards, they challenged him in the Democratic primary of 1936 and he still won with the help of many downstate Democratic and Republican voters who admired Horner for his honesty. Horner had the courage to buck he machine again on a U.S. Senate primary when the machine backed Sen. William Dieterich who Horner regarded as anti-Semitic with pro-Nazi views. Unfortunately, bad health prevented Horner from leading a campaign to beat Chicago Mayor Ed Kelly in early 1940 and he died that summer to be replaced by one of his Democratic enemies, Lt. Gov. John Stelle. Stelle only served in office a few months until he was defeated by Republican Dwight H. Green in the fall of 1940.