Paul Simon: 1928-2003

by Norm Winick

The conscience of Illinois politics died Tuesday. Paul Simon, state and federal legislator, author, newspaper publisher, and educator, died from extensive bowel ischemia following a heart bypass operation at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield. Simon was 75.

Paul Simon grew up in Oregon and attended — but never graduated from the University of Oregon and Dana College in Blair, Neb. His family had moved to southern Illinois. In 1948, he borrowed $3,600 from the local Lions’ club and bought the failing weekly newspaper in Troy — across from St. Louis. He is thought to have been the nation’s youngest editor-publisher at the time and developed a reputation as a muckraker, blasting crime and corruption and pointing out crime syndicate gambling ties to local officials. He argued for civil rights in segregated "Little Egypt." Eventually, he grew to own a small chain of 14 newspapers — including the Abingdon Argus. He sold them in 1966.

In 1953, Simon ran for the Illinois legislature. He considered himself a Republican at the time, and had voted for Dewey over Truman, (and even endorsed Dewey in his paper) but he ran as a Democrat so he had a better chance of winning in the overwhelmingly Democratic district.

He soon picked up the nickname "Reverend" for his constant haranguing on ethics. He was so disgusted by the culture of corruption in Springfield that he wrote several major magazine articles about it which garnered him national recognition.

In 1968, Simon was elected lieutenant Governor as a Democrat alongside Republican Richard Ogilvie — the first time that had happened. The new 1970 Illinois Constitution changed the rules so that the Governor and Lieutenant Governor ran as a team.

Simon intended to run against Ogilvie in 1972 but was instead knocked off in the Democratic primary by maverick Dan Walker, who successfully painted Simon as a pawn of the Daley machine — despite his career as a corruption-fighter.

He ran for and was elected to Congress from southern Ilinois for several terms until he took on incumbent U. S. Senator Chuck Percy in 1984, labelling the wealthy Percy as a "Country Club" Republican and narrowly won. Simon ran an aborted campaign for President in 1988 and was easily reelected to the Senate in 1990. His career was marked by unquestioned ethics, fiscal conservatism and social liberalism.

Respected by Democrats and Republicans alike, during each of his Senate terms, Simon made it a point to host a "town meeting" in all of Illinois’ 102 counties. They were always well-attended because he answered questions personally from anyone who wished to pose one. They also served to boost his popularity and keep him in touch with the people of the state. He also wrote a weekly newspaper column, banged out on his manual typewriter, that he sent to hundreds of newspapers in Illinois.

Simon retired after his second term and went home to Makanda, near Carbondale, to teach at Southern Illinois University and found a think tank: the Public Policy Institute. Mike Lawrence, a Galesburg native, worked with Simon as Associate Director of the Institute. "All of us at the institute were honored and privileged to work with this extraordinary human being and leader. We loved and respected him greatly and we will miss him very much. Without him the Institute will never be the same, but it will continue for decades and decades to come to pursue his unflagging commitment to a better world."

One of Simon’s last acts was to call reporters last Friday to tell them he was endorsing Howard Dean for President.

He had friends throughout the world. He sent Christmas cards to tens of thousands of them, annually keeping them apprised of the happenings in his family and political life.

Paul Simon had a self-deprecating sense of humor; he once appeared on "Saturday Night Live" in a skit confusing him with the other Paul Simon.

Sen. Dick Durbin, who now occupies Simon’s Senate seat, says that "Paul Simon set the standard for honesty and caring in public life."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) Tuesday called Simon "…a brilliant Senator with a flair for grass-roots politics, a reformer to the core, and the conscience of the Senate. …In another era, he would have been a founding father."