254 – Jesse White Former Illinois Secretary Of State & Founder Of The Jesse White Tumblers
Our guest this week is Jesse White of Chicago, who is the recently retired Illinois Secretary of State, who served in that capacity for 24 years and under five governors.
Prior to serving as Secretary of State, he was the Cook County Recorder of Deeds for seven years and a member of the Illinois House of Representatives for 16 years. Prior to his five decades long political career he served as a paratrooper in the US Army and was a member of the 101st Airborne Division and Illinois National Guard.
Jesse was also a Chicago Public School teacher and administrator for 33 years. He also played minor league baseball for the Chicago Cubs after his time in the Army.
Perhaps, most impressively, starting in 1959 he founded the Jesse White Tumblers, which has provided more than 19,000 at-risk youth (girls and boys) with training and guidance to make positive choices and learn important lessons for life. Jesse White Tumbler teams have performed at countless parades, NFL, MLB, and NBA games. They have also performed all over the U.S. and dozens of countries around the world. Amazingly, fewer than two dozen of them have gotten into trouble with the law.
It’s an inspirational story about growing up in an era of discrimination, overcoming constant obstacles, striving for success in so many different venues and making a tangible difference in the life of youth through discipline and determination.
Show Notes –
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Website – https://jessewhitetumblingteam.com/
Website – https://www.thejessewhitefoundation.org/
Wikipedia Page – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesse_White_(politician)
New York Times – https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/07/us/jesse-white-illinois-secretary-of-state-retire.html
Tom Couch: Special thanks to Horizon Therapeutics for sponsoring the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast, working tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics’ mission at HorizonTherapeutics.com.
Jesse White: Someone helped me be where I am today. I’ve never forgotten it. When you get it, you give it back and you must do something good for someone every day. And that’s how I live my life.
Tom Couch: He was the Illinois Secretary of State for 24 years. He played professional baseball with the Chicago Cubs organization. He was a paratrooper for the 101st Airborne, a member of the Illinois House, and perhaps most famously formed the Jesse White Tumbling team, performing for the NBA, the NFL, professional baseball, and in front of presidents and thousands of people throughout Chicago and beyond. He’s Jesse White. And he’s David Hirsch’s guest on this Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad podcast. Say hello now to David Hirsch.
David Hirsch: Hi, and thanks for listening to the Dad to Dad Podcast, fathers mentoring fathers of children with special needs, presented by the Special Fathers Network.
Please support the 21st Century Dads Foundation by contributing to Dads Honor Ride 2023, which is a 3,100-mile seven-day bicycle ride taking place from June 17th to the 24th, starting in Oceanside, California and ending in Annapolis, Maryland. I’m one of the four riders and would really appreciate your support. Please make a tax-deductible contribution by going to 21stCenturyDads.org.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children connect with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support dads. To find out more, go to 21stCenturyDads.org. And now let’s listen to this fascinating conversation between David Hirsch and Jesse White.
David Hirsch: I’m thrilled to be talking today with Jesse White of Chicago, Illinois, who’s the recently retired illinois Secretary of State, who served in that capacity for 24 years and under five governors. Prior to serving as the Secretary of State, he was the Cook County Recorder of Deeds for seven years and a member of the Illinois House of Representatives for 16 years. Prior to his five-decades long political career, he served as a paratrooper in the US Army and was a member of the 101st Airborne Division, as well as Illinois National Guard. He was also a public school teacher with Chicago Public Schools as well as an administrator for 33 years, and he played minor league baseball for the Chicago Cubs after his time in the service. Most impressively from my perspective, starting in 1959, he founded the Jesse White Tumbler teams, which provided more than 19,000 at-risk youth, girls and boys, with training and guidance to make positive choices and learn important lessons in life. Jesse, thank you for taking the time to do a podcast interview for the Special Fathers Network.
Jesse White: Thank you. Glad to be on board.
David Hirsch: You’re the proud father of three children and two grandchildren. Let’s start with some background. Where did you grow up? Tell me something about your family.
Jesse White: I was born in a town called Alton, Illinois, which is across the river from St. Louis. At age seven, we moved to Chicago here on the near north side, Larrabee and Division, where I attended elementary school and later went back to teach. And then on to Lincoln Park High School, which at the time was Waller High School. And then from there to Alabama State University in Montgomery, Alabama where I played basketball, baseball, and taught gymnastics, and I attended the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, which was under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King. And of course the lady by the name Rosa Parks was arrested. And he was asked to lead the effort to desegregate the Montgomery Transit system. He said he would do so, but he would use nonviolent means to approach that in order to bring that about. He used to give me $20 after every basketball game. He gave me credit for bringing the jump shot to the south. [laughing] They had never seen a jump shot before. And I was always a city basketball and baseball player in Chicago and then went off to Alabama State on a scholarship. So I played basketball, baseball and taught gymnastics and it was my scholarship. But people there had never seen a jump shot before and so they marveled at the fact that I was able to shoot out their half court, jumping off the floor about three and a half feet, maybe four feet high.
As I said before, I had to attend this church because I was a pledgee for the Capitol Office High Fraternity and Ralph Abernathy, a civil rights leader, required the pledgees to attend this church. He was fresh from Atlanta, Georgia. He was fresh from getting married. He married a young lady by the name of Coretta Scott King and she encouraged him to settle in Alabama. He was from Georgia. And at this church this one Sunday morning we were required to attend, we had probably about 35 people in the church. And we ran back to the campus singing the praises of Dr. King. And so the next Sunday, there may have been about a hundred people in the church and each Sunday his church would increase in population.
And later on he was promoted to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where he indicated that he had been asked by the city to desegregate the Montgomery Transit system. And he had agreed to do so, but he was gonna use nonviolent means in order to bring that about. So he says, if you get struck on one cheek, you turn like Gandhi, and you gtet struck on the other cheek. And so I raised by hand. He said, Jesse White, what can I do for you? I said, Dr. King, you know me. You know me well, you know I’m from Chicago and we don’t operate like that. [laughing] He said just follow the script and if you do that, victory will be on our side and always will. I said thank you very much, doc.
And then after I graduated from college, I came back to Chicago, went out to Wrigley Field, tried out for the Chicago Cubs, and as it turned out, there were about 300 ball players. They only took five, and I was one of the five. And four days before going to spring training, I ended up going to basic training in Missouri. And the problem was there I decided I wanted jump out of airplanes and went to jump school. I earned my wings and did 35 jumps in total. Came back to Chicago, put my uniform in the closet, got my ball bag and glove and flew off to Mesa, Arizona to be with Chicago Cubs organization. I played D ball, C, A, double-A and triple-A. I’ve never made it to the majors. And there’s a story behind that and I’ll get to that later.
But the bottom line is this, after I came back through Chicago, my godfather, a fellow by the name of George Dunne, who’s a former and the longest serving president of the Cook County Board, asked me if I would consider running for state representative. I said, Mr. President, I enjoyed knocking on doors, circulating petitions, and getting the word out about the candidates being endorsed by a party. I said, I don’t think I would do very well being an elected official. He said, you’ll do fine.
And every weekend I would go skiing up in Michigan and I would go down this one hill and I just could not negotiate it. So on this particular Sunday, I went down 12 times without falling. I came back and said if I could handle this hill, I could handle a political arena. [laughing] So I told President Dunne that he had his candidate for state representative. He said, great.
I said, what is the boundary lines of the district? He said Fullerton to the Chicago River and then from Lake Michigan to the North Branch of the Chicago River. I said, what is the racial make-up? He said, oh, it’s just 85% white, 10% black, 5% others. I said, Mr. President, that’s two strikes against me and the curve ball coming up. [laughing] He said, you’ll do fine. So as it turned out, I served Lincoln Park. I had to ask him another question. What is the make-up of the district in terms of communities? He says Lincoln Park, DePaul, River North, Streeterville, Gold Coast area, Magnificent Mile, Grass Triangle, and Cabrini Green. I said, that’s like going from Gold Coast to the Soul Coast. [laughing] So he said, you’ll do fine. So as it turned out, I ran and I served in this diverse district in a manner in which they could be proud for a period of 16 years. And then later on, the party asked me to run for Cook County Recorder of Deeds to replace Carol Moseley Braun.
And so I served there for 16 years and then I became the ward committeeman of the 27th Ward and 12 of my precinct captains indicated they wanted to meet with me. And I said what can I do for you, John? He said we’ve been thinking and we’ve been talking among ourselves, and we thought that maybe you should seriously think about running for Secretary of State. I said no African American had ever been successful in running for Secretary of State for the City of Illinois. And so I said, what makes you think that I have the qualifications to do that? He said we think that you have all that it takes in order to run the largest Secretary of State office of the nation and in the state of Illinois. I said what is your pleasure? He said we think that you should meet with Speaker Madigan. and ask him to support you into this effort. So I called him, I said, Mike, this is Jesse. He said, yeah, nice to talk to you. I served 16 years in the General Assembly with him, so I knew him well and his seat was only a few feet from where I sat. And so I asked him if I can meet with him. He said sure. Come down to my office about one o’clock on Monday. I said sure.
So I said Mr. Speaker, do I create a problem in my desire to run for Secretary of State? He said, yes, you do. I said can you explain that to me, sir? He says all the people who are waiting for the constitutional offices are from Cook County and we need someone outside of Cook County in order to be able to gain control of the house. We take control of the house, they gain control of the Senate. Just wouldn’t make sense for us to have all of the candidates for constitutional offices coming from Cook County. I said, who do you have in mind? He said Penny Severns. I know the senator from Decatur. He said or Glenn Poshard, oh yeah, from southern Illinois, a congressman.
He said, there’s a fellow by the name of Tim McCarthy. I said who is Tim McCarthy? He said, he’s a secret service agent who took a bullet for President Reagan. I don’t know him. I don’t trust him. I think he’s Republican. I said, okay, thank you very much, sir. So I left his office. I went back to my organization, indicated to them that I did not get any encouragement from Speaker Madigan. So they said, we’re gonna circulate your petitions anyway. I said, you guys go right ahead and do what you have to do. Do whatever you want to do. I’m enjoying being the Cook County Recorder of Good Deeds.
David Hirsch: [laughing] Good deeds.
Jesse White: So about a month later, they called me and said, we’d like to meet with you. So I met with these four precinct captains. They had nine stacks of petitions, three stacks for Penny Severns. They said Penny Severns petitions, but they were round table. They had 12 people to sign petitions in the middle of yours. All yours are good, but we want you to see this other stack.
I said why do you want me to see those stacks? He said it’s interesting. You see who is circulating the petitions? I looked at Ed Burke, Tom Hines, Congressman Lapinsky, and Mike Madigan, and it was for Tim McCarthy. And Tim McCarthy is Republican and he is from Orland Park, which means that he was not from outside of Cook County.
So I was upset by that. So I called back and asked him to allow me to meet with him again, and he said, what can I do for you, Jesse? I said, Mr. Speaker, I said, I served with you for 16 years, and you never had to worry about where I was when it came to your agenda. I said, but the other day when I met with you, you told me that you didn’t want anyone from Cook County to be considered for Secretary of State because you wanted to be able to retain control of the house and gain control of the Senate.
And you said that all the candidates being from Cook County, that was a non-starter. So I’m here because I’m really seeking reason as to why you are so disingenuous with me in regard to this matter. He says well, I believe that Tim McCarthy will bring more to the table than you. I believe that he will help me to retain control of the house and for us to gain control of the Senate.
So if I were you, Jesse White, I would tell your friends, your colleagues, your supporters, not to waste their time, efforts or energy on your behalf, because Tim McCarthy is going to become the next Secretary of State for the state of Illinois. Do you understand? I said, Mr. Speaker. I came to this meeting to seek a reason as to why I shouldn’t run. You’ve given me a reason as to why I’m going to run. You have a good day, sir. [laughing]
So I went back to my organization and I said I’m in it to win it. So I averaged 14 to 16 events every day, traveling all over the state of Illinois, go to bed at two o’clock every night, getting up at six o’clock every morning. I was a former military person. A former athlete, so I have that competitive spirit.
David Hirsch: Very disciplined. Yeah.
Jesse White: And so as it turned out on election day I won by 150,000 votes. And so the next morning the first person I saw was Mike Madigan who came to congratulate me and to give some financial support. And so we’ve been friends ever since. We were friends before and now we’re back friends again.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That’s a beautiful story. Thank you for sharing. It speaks volumes about your sort of integrity. You’re just honest, you’re straightforward, you’re opening up the lens of communication. Like you said, you’re in it to win it. And I think that’s just exemplary, it speaks volumes about the way you conduct yourself, not just then, but…
Jesse White: I believe you take on a job, you should take on responsibility that goes with it, and you have to be at your duty station every day to show your duties to the best of your ability. If you do less than that, shame on you.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That ties right into being fathers, being present physically, emotionally, spiritually, in your children’s lives.
Jesse White: Someone helped me be where I am today. I’ve never forgotten it. When you get it, you give it back and you must do something good for someone every day. That’s how I live my life. And with the Jesse White Tumblers, they have to be leafless, smokeless, and pipeless, and no marijuana or cannabis. Maintain at least a C average in school. They must learn to love their fellow man and woman, or better yet, not dislike anyone because of race, creed or color. I’ve been there, done that. I know how bad it makes you feel. I know how deep it cuts. I have zero tolerance for that kind of nonsense.
And then of course we want our young people to go out into life to be a positive force and that’s why we insist on them to maintain at least a C average in school. When they drop out of school, then that’s a non-starter. You are persona non grata. He said, what is that? Yeah, outta here. [laughing] So I believe in tough love, but I do believe that every day you should spend time helping out young people to grow tall and straight and to give them the tools that are necessary for them to become a success in life.
David Hirsch: Yep. We’re on the same page. So I wanna go back a little bit. When you were growing up, I think you had mentioned previously that you have six siblings and you’re the middle child. So what was it like growing up in a big family like that?
Jesse White: We lived in a town called Alton, Illinois, and the washroom was outside, or the toilet was outside in a little shed called an outhouse. And then later on at age 7, my family moved to Chicago, to the near north side, Larrabee and Division, which was a predominantly Italian neighborhood where you had to be able to capice Italiana, eat spaghetti with the calamari sauce and if you could speak some of the language, eat their food, it makes for a good relationship. So I worked in a grocery store for a fellow by the name of Sam Aiello.
I played a lot of basketball, softball and ran track, and then later on went on to Lincoln Park High School, which is Walnut High School then, it’s Lincoln Park now. The first year I didn’t do anything. I didn’t play anything. The next year I was encouraged to play basketball, try out for the basketball team, and then I was encouraged to try out for the Drum Corps. So I was a member of the Drum Corps, in band and orchestra, and played basketball and baseball, and ended up being an All City athlete.
And after I had completed my four years at the wonderful institution of learning, I was ready to go into Beloit College, but I didn’t have a sequence of math. They turned me down. Then Ripon college, they turned me down. Northwestern turned me down, and then Tennessee State turned me down. They said you’re too short. You’re only five, eight and half. But Alabama State in Montgomery, Alabama was encouraged by a fellow by the name of Anthony, who had a good friend of mine who graduated from Gustavo High School, told the coach that we have a fellow in Chicago by the name of Jesse White, looking for an institution of higher learning to attend and you will benefit tremendously by having him on a team. And so they invited me down. I tried out, they gave me a scholarship. I spent four years at a wonderful institution of learning. Playing basketball, playing baseball, teaching gymnastics.
David Hirsch: I love it.
Jesse White: That was my scholarship.
David Hirsch: Yeah. It’s like when one door closes, perhaps another door opens. And it sounds like you had a lot of closed doors for whatever reason. Maybe it was your height or whatever.
Jesse White: We have to talk about my baseball. I gotta tell you about that door too.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Back to your family. I’m curious to know what did your dad do for a living?
Jesse White: My father worked for the Chicago Pottery, where they made sinks and face bowls, et cetera. He also worked for the American aircraft industry, putting parts in planes. And then later on he opened his own business, a janitorial service, and he passed away. That was what he was doing. And we would come out some day. He said, help him to clean some of the offices that was under his contract.
David Hirsch: Excellent. So I’m curious to know, how would you describe your relationship with your dad?
Jesse White: Wonderful. Wonderful. I love my father and we’ve never had a cross word, never would do anything to disappoint him. He spent most of his time bragging about me to his colleagues. He spent a lot of time in Logan Square. That’s where most of his offices were. We opened up his janitorial services and he was bragging about my son Jesse who was with the Cub organization or that scored 60 points in the high school game and what he was doing in college. And the list goes on and on.
David Hirsch: I’m assuming he was bragging about your siblings too. He wasn’t just bragging about you.
Jesse White: No, he was letting them… Because I was in the newspaper a lot and people on the radio were talking about how I could shoot the basketball and how fast I was, so they can relate to what he was talking about because they could see it in print or…
David Hirsch: Gotcha.
Jesse White: …through the media. But he was proud of all of his kids. And as I indicated before, when I entered the military, I signed a contract for baseball with the Cubs. Four days later, I was drafted into the Army, and so when they sent me to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. And while I was there, I went through jump school, did 35 jumps, came back Chicago, put my uniform in the closet, got my ball and glove and flew off to Mesa, Arizona for spring training. And they assigned me to Carlsbad, New Mexico D Ball, and I worked my way up from D Ball to triple-A. As it turned out, in triple-A I played for Salt Lake City. And I hit a home run this one night, and I very seldom, you know, run.
So one of the reporters said, I’d like to know if I could have an interview with you, Jesse White. I said what is that about? She says I heard you do a lot of wonderful things in Chicago with kids, and I want to capture that information if I can. I said, what is your place? She said can I have lunch with you tomorrow at this particular restaurant? I said sure.
So I met with her at the restaurant and while I was sitting there with the microphone in between us, two of my ball player friends saw me, one was from South Carolina, one was from North Carolina. And they were hunching each other and they were really peeping trying to hear the conversation and was really concerned about me being with this white woman.
Then a few moments later, Fred Martin, pitching coach for the Cubs, saw me and he stood there with his hands on his hips. And so that evening came to get ready to play the game. He called me into his office and told me that you were on the list by the Cubs, but your name has been scratched off. I said, why’d you… What happened? Said you were out with your girlfriend. I said, that was not my girlfriend. She was a reporter from the Deseret News, and she was doing a report on me, doing a story about me, about what I do back in Chicago. But no. Tell that story to someone else. As it turned out, I was never brought up.
Later on I quit. And so the Cubs were owned by the Wrigley Spearmint Gum at the time. Tom Ricketts bought the Cubs a few years ago. He heard the story, so he decided that he wanted to have what’s called Jesse White Day at Wrigley Field. So he wanted the tumblers to come on to perform. He wanted me to throw a pitch out and he gave me a contract, and so it was like, I’ll show you. And so two thumbs up for Tom Ricketts.
David Hirsch: Yeah. I understood that story to be that you signed a one-day contract.
Jesse White: Yes.
David Hirsch: And you’re an honorary member of the Cubs organization for life now.
Jesse White: Sure.
David Hirsch: Yeah. I love that story. And not to make too much of it, but was that a blatant issue of discrimination because you were a black man back in the early sixties in an organization that was mostly white baseball players?
Jesse White: Let me share one more story with you. Fellow by the name of Paul Casanova. Paul was a Cuban about the color of my shoes. From Cuba, and he and I were the only two black ball players on the team. And during those days, black ball players had to live with black families. We could not live in the same hotel with the rest of the ball players. We could not eat in the same restaurant that the other ball players ate in. So this one morning we were in San Antonio, Texas. I said, Paul, let’s have breakfast. So we go to this restaurant, we sat for about 15 minutes. No menu, no water, no service.
So finally I said to the young man, how about some service here? He said we don’t serve colored people here. I said to Paul in Spanish, stand up, let’s go. So he hit the table and swore. And so as we were walking out the door, I’m talking and I’m thinking he’s behind me. He’s sitting down at the table and I was beside myself. Here this fellow… So I went back and I grabbed a seat to sit down and the fellow said no, you gotta leave. We’ll serve him, but they won’t serve me. Now this guy was the color of my shoes. Cuban, couldn’t speak any English, not a citizen. I’m a former military person, a citizen, and I spoke English very well.
I was beside myself because of that kind of discrimination… I experienced a lot of that in my lifetime. And I’ll tell you a story one day about my big experience with segregation and discrimination when I was up in St. Cloud, Minnesota. But the bottom line is this: I have zero tolerance for that kind of hatred or dislike for anyone. And I teach my young people, you cannot ever be a part of that arena.
And you become what is called persona non grata with me. Ya outta here.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Thank you for emphasizing that. And here it is 2023 and the stain of discrimination of racism still exists in our society. It’s shocking. It’s appalling.
Jesse White: It shouldn’t be as ugly.
David Hirsch: Yeah, it’s unspeakable. But getting back to your dad… When you think of your dad, is there a lesson or two that come to mind that have helped you guide your life and conduct yourself in the way you do because of your dad?
Jesse White: My father and I were like brothers. We had that kind of a relationship. I would go to his ball games, he played softball, and I would marvel at his ability to play and meet some of his teammates and some of his colleagues and friends. And my buttons on my shirt would pop off because I was so proud of him. Not only the way he played ball, but the way he conducted himself with us, the way he taught us, the way he spoke to us. Always had a highly professional manner, and I said to myself, I want to emulate this man.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. So I’m thinking about other father influencers and I’m wondering what, if any, influence your grandfather’s played first on your dad’s side and then on your mom’s side.
Jesse White: My mother’s father was a preacher and a dapper guy. Always dressed well. He spoke well. He was well liked and highly respected. And he was always there to help us with whatever problem we had. He was there to give us advice and counsel, and there were times when we needed a few dollar bills. He was there for that purpose as well.
David Hirsch: How about your dad’s dad?
Jesse White: I never met him.
David Hirsch: He died at an early age.
Jesse White: See, my mother and father met each other in Alton, Illinois. My father was from Columbusville, Missouri. My mother was from Earl, Arkansas, and they met in Alton, Illinois. And then she had three children, and then he married her, and then she had the fourth all the way up to seven.
David Hirsch: Okay. So you’re the fourth?
Jesse White: I’m the fourth.
David Hirsch: You were the first born between the two of them.
Jesse White: That’s right.
David Hirsch: So your dad’s first child really.
Jesse White: That’s right.
David Hirsch: Okay. So that’s a little bit of the specialness between you and him maybe.
Jesse White: He was fair to all of us. He was just a great guy.
David Hirsch: Okay. Any other father figures, men who played an influential role as you were growing up or maybe as a young adult for that matter?
Jesse White: Alonzo Krem, who was an assistant principal and also PE person helped me as a youngster coming up. Fred Ross, he is deceased. He too helped me when he worked at the River North Center. And then my basketball coach, Russ Chapel. Englishman, toughest guy I think I’ve ever met in life, helped me to hone my skills in basketball. Then, of course, George Dunne, my Irish godfather. And then I used to work for a guy by the name of Sam Aiello at a grocery store at Division and Cambridge. And he’d say to me, and he’d called me Bucky, he’d say, Bucky I want you to open the light in about 10 minutes. I want you to close the light. And I figured that one out. He says, turn it on. And then say, turn it on. Wonderful man.
David Hirsch: It sounds like you’ve had some really important role models in your life.
Jesse White: That’s why I’m involved with what I do. Someone helped me along the path. It’s only fitting and proper for you to give back and do something good for someone every day. If I don’t do that, I’m gonna have a bad day.
Tom Couch: We’ll be back with more of the conversation on the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast in just a few moments. But first, this quick message. Please help 21st Century Dads gather research on families raising children with special needs by having them complete the Special Fathers Network Early Intervention Parents Survey. A link to the survey can be found in the show notes. As a token of our appreciation, each person, mom or dad, who completes the survey, will receive a Great Dad Coin. Thank you. Now back to the conversation.
David Hirsch: So let’s talk a little bit about your different experiences. You’ve talked a little bit about your baseball career. We talked a little bit about your service and the House of Representatives, which led to you being elected as the 37th Illinois Secretary of State, and then serving in that capacity for 24 years, the longest serving Secretary of State in Illinois, and one of the largest, if not the largest DMVs in the country with 4,000 employees.
Jesse White: It is the largest of its kind in the nation.
David Hirsch: Okay. So when you look back at your 24 years as Secretary of State, I’m wondering what are the highlights? What achievements come to mind that you can reflect back on that said we did something that made a difference.
Jesse White: When I came to this office under a cloud of controversy, George Ryan was the Secretary of State. And he left with the office under a cloud of controversy where the employees were required to buy fundraising tickets, sell fundraising tickets, and do political work and contribute to his campaign.
And so I decided that when I came on board that I had to do something about it. I hired an Inspector General, Jim Burns, to help me to come up with some ways by which we can bring this office up to snuff. And so we abolished the process by which individuals were required to buy fundraising tickets, sell fundraising tickets, do political work, or sell drivers licenses or stickers or state IDs.
So this was the order of the day when I walked into the office and shortly thereafter, it was a part of history. George had a person who was his best friend to serve as his Inspector General, who was not qualified to serve in that capacity. So after I hired Jim Burns, I went before the Senate. I asked them to make sure that whoever the Inspector General is for the Secretary of State’s office had to be confirmed by the Senate. So now you know you gained a real bang for the buck.
David Hirsch: Yeah, you want that to be like an arms-length transaction, somebody who’s objective.
Jesse White: So it’s someone who’s qualified, not someone who didn’t have a degree. Inspector General, never heard of such a thing.
David Hirsch: Just as a point of clarification, didn’t George Ryan go from being the Secretary of State to the Governor?
Jesse White: Yes, he did, but then later on he was convicted for some of the things that happened in the Secretary of State’s office. He’s a good friend of mine, good guy. I admire him, have respect for him, even though he did something that was not proper. But he was a good man. I served in the General Assembly with him too as well, and he was the Speaker of the House when I was there too.
David Hirsch: Yeah. So any other aspects of the Secretary of State experience that come to mind?
Jesse White: The Organ and Tissue Donor program. My sister Doris wasn’t feeling well, was in dire need of a kidney. There was not a match within the family, so she put her name on an organ tissue donor list. And through the generosity of someone, a gentleman who happened to be Caucasian came, passed away and she received his kidney. She lived an additional 28 years as a result of that gift. We honored a teacher in Illinois. She gave her student her kidney. We honored a doctor at Loyola Medical School. She gave her kidney to a patient. And then I hired a gentleman who received four organs, and then I hired another gentleman who received five organs.
David Hirsch: Oh my.
Jesse White: And they, so walking billboard.
David Hirsch: Yeah, that’s impressive. You reminded me of a personal experience that I had. I was so inspired by your program, the Organ Donor program, that I contacted somebody in your office. I couldn’t tell you who it was or the exact year. But I had this idea that we were gonna get t-shirts that said, “Got organs?” Like the “Got milk?” campaign. And I thought, oh, this would be perfect. It’d be so easy just to use that popular way of communicating.
Jesse White: I like that.
David Hirsch: And they said that’s an interesting idea, but that’s not gonna work for us. Thank you very much. [laughing]
Jesse White: I wish you would have told me.
David Hirsch: I didn’t talk to the right person! [laughing]
Jesse White: That’s right.
David Hirsch: But as a result of that, I’ve become an organ donor. I’ve been outspoken about people, you can’t take the stuff with you.
Jesse White: Sure. Let me share something else with you too. When I walked into the office, only 18-year olds could sign up to become a part of the organ and tissue donor program. And as it turned out, I introduced a bill in the Illinois General Assembly to have it changed to allow 16- and 17-year olds when they get their drivers license to be able to sign up to become a part of the organ and tissue donor program. And as a result of that bill, I think we have somewhere in the vicinity of about 200,000 young people who are now part of the organ and tissue donor program. Now, we cannot use the organs of the 16- or 17-year olds. They have to get parental consent, but they can participate once they reach the age of 18 on their own.
David Hirsch: Yeah I think one of your MOs is you want to get to these young people as early as you can, whether it’s organ donor, Jesse White Tumbler…
Jesse White: And I also want to be able to put good people out into the world. And I want them to know that. And I’ve just experienced discrimination, segregation for a long period of time. It really hurts my soul to think about how another individual could treat me or anyone else the way that I was treated. And so I teach these young people zero tolerance when it comes to racial discrimination. Bullying is another thing, another problem too, where they do electronic bullying, they do it by way of a cell phone and they do it in person.
And so zero tolerance. You cannot be a part of anything that I’m involved with if you feel that way about your fellow man or woman.
David Hirsch: Yeah. What I hear you saying I guess pun intended, it’s a black and white issue. It’s just right or wrong.
Jesse White: That’s right.
David Hirsch: Let’s talk about the Jesse White Tumblers team. What’s the backstory? What was it in 1959 that got you off the couch and said, I need to do something?
Jesse White: Okay. During the off season, I taught school during the day, worked for the park district at night, was asked to put on the gym show at the Rockwell Garden Fieldhouse, which is the Rockwell Garden Housing Project. Fellow by the name of Warren Tier was the parks supervisor. So he asked me to put on the gym show. I said, okay, great. I taught the kids forward roll, backward roll, cartwheel, round off, flip flop, and they brought out the trap on the springboard and taught them how to do some stunts off the springboard because these are some of the same things that I taught when I was at Alabama State University.
So as it turned out, for that one gym show the gym was packed. They had never seen that many people in a gymnasium in life. And so the parents said that they’d like for me to continue on with the program and I said, okay, fine. I’ll go one more year. Let’s start out with one year. Ended up with 65 as we speak. And it’s to the point now where it’s a household program. It’s a household name. Jesse White Tumbling Team.
David Hirsch: Oh yeah.
Jesse White: Where the people know that the kids are gonna be well-educated, mannered, and put in the process in which they can help run this country of ours. We have strict rules and regulations. You violate the code of conduct, then you’re outta here.
And so over 19,000 kids, 16 that I know of got themselves in trouble with the law. It’s been a manner to combat juvenile delinquency. And as I said before, kids say, Hey man, I’d rather be in trouble with the police than be in trouble with Mr. White. [laughing] That’s how tough the love is.
David Hirsch: So where have the Tumblers performed?
Jesse White: We travel all over the world: Croatia, Belize, Israel, China, Tokyo, Japan, Hong Kong, Cayman Islands, Bermuda. You name it, we’ve been there. At the Big 10, the NBA, the NFL, colleges and universities, elementary schools, bar mitzvas, bat mitzvas, let’s go. And we were in Israel and we performed there. And I indicated when they gave me the microphone who I was and had served in the military, and then these 10,000 soldiers stood up, gave me a standing ovation. And I loved Israel. But there was only one thing I didn’t like about Israel. One thing. When it came time for me to eat breakfast, no bacon, eggs, or ham. [laughing] That’s the only thing I didn’t like about it, but it was beautiful country, great people, lox and bagel, gefilite fish, kreplach, the list goes on.
David Hirsch: Yeah. That’s a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing.
Jesse White: Yeah, I’m looking forward to going back. They’re working on it now as we speak.
David Hirsch: Yeah. The Tumblers, it’s a phenomenon.
Jesse White: The other thing too, and that is, I forgot to tell you this, that when you go to see the Bulls play, the kids who do the slam dunk is a Jesse Tumbler team.
David Hirsch: Oh, really? Okay. Whenever I’ve seen the Tumblers, it’s probably a dozen times in my life, it’s always a spectacle. It’s always high energy. And you’re just amazed at what these young people can do. It’s like they’re just flying through the air. And I can only imagine the amount of confidence that it gives these young people, coming from these very modest backgrounds that most of them have. And they’re doing something not only as an individual, but they’re doing something as a team. So they’re learning a lot of life lessons.
Jesse White: Sure. And what’s good about it, they get a chance to meet people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. Like I said before, you learn to eat someone else’s food, learn about the culture. It makes for a good relationship. That’s the experience I want them to have. And then of course we turn down hundreds of requests every year because we cannot put ’em into our schedule. We do about 35 parades on the 4th of July.
David Hirsch: Oh, wow.
Jesse White: And we, matter of fact, we were in the Highland Park Parade when they had the shooting and it was called off before our unit got a chance to march.
And so these kids see the world. We make sure that the ones who want to go off to college, we’ll help in that process. We have a trunk party every year.
David Hirsch: Rotary One.
Jesse White: That’s right. We have about 800 this year. We give out 800 trunks thanks to Rotary One and others. We do the scholarship program too. We have about 20 kids every year that we send off to college and we reached from between $3,000 to $6,000 toward education. You can be a good athlete, which would be a good student and a good human being.
David Hirsch: So you’ve had thousands of individuals over the years participate in the Jesse White Tumbler program. I’m wondering if there’s an anecdotal story or two, an individual, young man or woman, that comes to mind that you know you’re particularly proud of?
Jesse White: Richard Blackman. He’s a gentleman who was one of my Tumblers when I was teaching at the elementary school I graduated from. He went on to Lincoln Park High School and then from there to Southern Illinois University and from Southern Illinois University to Notre Dame School of Law and became a practicing attorney. And he practiced law for a number of years, and he realized that was not his calling. So right now he’s working on a juveline delinquency prevention program.
David Hirsch: Any women?
Jesse White: Oh, we have young ladies who are doctors, lawyers, teachers, pharmacists, massage therapists, you name it. We cover the gamut.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Like I said in my introductory remarks one of the things that I’m most impressed with is the impact that you’ve had on at risk youth here in the Chicago area and the impact that they’ve had, not only around the state of Illinois, but around the US and beyond.
Jesse White: Let me tell you something else to show you how on target you are. Whenever we go someplace and perform, we are inundated with requests for that brochure because I want my kid to be in a program such as yours. And at one time I had six locations and groups at Waukegan, Springfield, Evansville, Indiana, Baywood, Illinois, St. Joe, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey. And Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And Decatur, Illinois.
David Hirsch: Yeah. I’m hoping that the program enjoys more replication like you’ve been talking about, that would carry on well beyond your lifetime.
Jesse White: I hope this program will be around for eternity.
David Hirsch: Yep. So let’s talk a little bit about the Jesse White Foundation.
Jesse White: It is the umbrella of the Jesse White Tumblers.
David Hirsch: So you have the scholarship program. You have a tutoring program. You provide job opportunities for the unemployed. So I’m coming up to speed on the Tumblers. There’s a minimum expectation, right? Grades, their academic performance, staying free from drugs and alcohol and gangs. And I’m wondering, how are the Tumblers selected? How do they qualify for the higher level performances or the travel that you do?
Jesse White: They’d have to show that they are proficient enough to be a part of the traveling squad. So they work as hard as they can. If they need help, we help them with that. But they have to be more, to be a good performer and be a good human being. Good tumbler. Good team member. Good human being.
David Hirsch: Excellent. That gives them something to strive for, something to shoot for, right?
Jesse White: Sure. And by the way, when we do shows, some of the shows are pro bono. We donate the show. We pick up the foundation and the tell team we’ll pick up the tab. For example, if you have an organization that cannot afford to pay the fee and it’s a worthy or worthwhile organization, then I’ll make the decision as to whether we should make it pro bono. Question was asked, pro bono? How much is that? And zero. [laughing]
David Hirsch: So I don’t wanna focus on the negative. But you made reference to some of the adversity or obstacles that you’ve experienced in life in a more of a rapid fire fashion. What have been some of the biggest challenges that you’ve encountered, first as a youth, when you’re thinking about growing up?
Jesse White: As a youth? Poverty is number one, and discrimination is another.
David Hirsch: Okay. How about as an athlete? What are some of the challenges you encountered as an athlete?
Jesse White: Discrimination. [laughing] Discrimination. That’s about the only thing.
David Hirsch: Okay. How about as a teacher? What were some of the challenges you encountered as a teacher?
Jesse White: None. I enjoyed it. When I was a kid, I used to try to figure out ways to avoid going to school. My back, my nose, my throat, my head, oh, you gotta go to school. I left the Board of Education with 139 unused sick days.[laughing] I went to school. I spent more time at school than I did when I was a kid. I probably missed in… I taught 33 years. If I missed 10 days, that’s a lot.
David Hirsch: Yeah, it sounds like you’re very dedicated at something that you’re a natural at and it’s very rewarding.
Jesse White: If there’s a job to do, you do it to the best of your ability. And the easiest thing you’ll ever get a chance to do in life is say I quit, or I can’t. And I don’t want that to ever be a part of my philosophy. So when Madigan told me not to waste my time, tell my friends not to waste their time, their money or their efforts on my behalf, I said, watch me. And that’s what I tell kids. Watch me.
David Hirsch: Yeah. Never doubt a man on a mission. That’s my way of thinking about it. So back to challenges that you’ve encountered. How about as a parent?
Jesse White: As a parent? Oh, tough love. Tough love. Have to go to school. And as I said, two of them excel beyond. One is a domestic worker, but the other two, one graduated from Illinois State and the other graduated from Cornell. And both on scholarship.
David Hirsch: How about as a not-for-profit leader? What are some of the bigger challenges you’ve faced?
Jesse White: Let me share with you what happened. One day, some of my staff came to me when I was Secretary of State. They said, we want to build a building in your honor. I said what’s that all about? They said you’ve done so much with kids and you have to use this facility, Moody Bible Institute or Seward Park or Stan Park. Have you ever thought about having your own facility? I said I never thought about it, but it’s a good idea. He said first of all, let’s talk with Mayor Daley. Let’s see if we can get some fundings like TIF money. That’s about $10 million. I said, okay, fine. So I met with Mayor Daley, indicated that I wanted a piece of property where we can build a facility so that the kids can come become better educated, better informed, become better athletes, better human beings.
And he said, that’s a great idea. I looked at a place at 150 North Western Avenue where I did my first tumbling show, and it is in need of repair. Tear it down and make the land smooth and build a facility to help you create where I started my first, The Jesse White Tumblers. So he said let’s do that. So then after they cleared the land and we were ready to start building something, because I had raised about $6 million, I found out that he said, I’d like for you to come to my office.
So I went over to his office. I said, what can I do for you, Mayor Daley? He said that particular location is a non-starter. I said, what do you mean? He said, the ministers, the churches in that area don’t want you over there. I said, don’t want you over there? I said, I don’t understand that. He said when you’re over there, all of the kids would come to where you were. And there would not be enough kids for them to have at their facility.
David Hirsch: Oh, geez.
Jesse White: So I said, okay. So then Mayor Daley asked me to come back in a couple weeks. I went back and he said, I have a location for you. He said, 412 West Chicago Avenue. I said, I’ll take it. He said, I don’t understand this. I was expecting a big argument or a big discussion. Tell me, why would you want a location at 412 West Chicago Avenue? I said, that’s one of the sites of Cabrini Green. I knew the building that was there. I live about five blocks from it. I said, you have Chicago Avenue bus, Larrabee bus, Halsted bus, brown line, red line. Hey, it’s a place where kids can use to get to where the facility would be located.
And so he said, fine. So we started building, but yet I had not gotten the $10 million. He left without giving me… Walter Burnett, my alderman, signed off on the $10 million, but he left and didn’t sign the document. So one day Rahm Emanuel is running for mayor. He called me and asked me to have breakfast with him. We sat, we talked and I indicated that I have about 60 black churches that I can take him to. He said, you’d do that? He says, I’m gonna be a winner. I said I’m glad to have you on board. So as we were leaving, he said, is there anything that you want me to do for you? I said Mayor Daley left me with the promise that he was going to give me $10 million of TIF money. Alderman Burnett signed off on it, but he didn’t sign the document. He said let me become the next mayor and I’ll show you something. About three weeks after he became the mayor he got the $10 million and this is the building.
David Hirsch: Yeah. I love that story. Thank you. Thank you for sharing.
Jesse White: Do you know Rahm Emanuel?
David Hirsch: In a tangential way. He was somebody who got things done.
Jesse White: Two thumbs up for Rahm Emanuel.
David Hirsch: So I’m wondering under the banner of advice what advice can you share with parents, especially dads, as relates to fulfilling their commitment?
Jesse White: Be honest with your kids. Be fair. Be tough. Be loving. Be caring. Giving. Let your word be your bond. Never lie to them. Never mislead them. But at the same time, when they violate the spirit of rules and regulations that you’ve established… Back in the movie with Clint Eastwood, you say you’re [bleeped]. Tough love.
David Hirsch: Yeah. I think that’s the message I’ve heard consistently from you is that you experienced that growing up as a youth was a really important trait as an athlete and in the army. And you’ve tried to share those same lessons that you’ve learned with thousands, tens of thousands of other young people. And we all need to know what’s expected of us. And most people try to achieve what’s expected of them. Some will excel beyond that. And for those that aren’t motivated, they just need something to shoot for. So I’m wondering if there’s anything else you’d like to say before we wrap up.
Jesse White: I’ve had the great honor of serving the people of the state of Illinois with honor and distinction for a period of 24 years as Secretary of State, not to mention the 16 years as State Representative, and not to mention the six years as Cook County Recorder of Deeds. And I just want thank the people for allowing me to serve and to bring your office into the 21st century and make it the kind of office that they can look to with a sense of pride. And knowing full well that not only did I take on the job, but I was committed to duty and that this office is a better place for them to come to get the services that they deserve in a timely manner and in a highly professional way. And so with that, two thumbs up for the great people of the state of Illinois.
David Hirsch: That’s fabulous. Jesse, thank you for the time and many insights. As a reminder, Jesse is just one of the advocates of the Special Fathers Network, a mentoring program for fathers raising a child with special needs. If you’d like to be a mentor father, or are seeking advice from a mentor father with a similar situation to your own, please go to 21stCenturyDads.org.
Thank you for listening to the latest episode of the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. I hope you enjoyed the conversation as much as I did. As you probably know, the 21st Century Dads Foundation is a 501c3 not-for-profit organization, which means we need your help to keep our content free to all concerned. Would you please consider making a tax-deductible contribution? I would really appreciate your support. Jesse, thanks again.
Tom Couch: And thank you for listening to the Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast. The Special Fathers Network is a dad to dad mentoring program for fathers raising children with special needs. Through our personalized matching process, new fathers with special needs children match up with mentor fathers in a similar situation. It’s a great way for dads to support other dads. To find out more, go to 21stCenturyDads.org.
David Hirsch: And if you’re a dad looking for help or would like to offer help, we would be honored to have you join our closed Facebook group. Please go to Facebook.com, groups, and search “dad to dad.” Lastly, we’re always looking to share interesting stories. If you’d like to share your story or know of a compelling story, please send an email to David@21stCenturyDads.org.
Tom Couch: The Special Fathers Network Dad to Dad Podcast was produced by me, Tom Couch.
Thanks again to Horizon Therapeutics who believe that science and compassion must work together to transform lives. That’s why they work tirelessly to research, develop, and bring forward medicines for people living with rare and rheumatic diseases. Discover more about Horizon Therapeutics at HorizonTherapeutics.com.