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'I've had a wonderful ride'; Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White set to retire from political life

Jesse White set to retire as Illinois Secretary of State
Jesse White set to retire as Illinois Secretary of State 05:32

CHICAGO (CBS) -- His motto is "do something good for someone every day." Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White is arguably one of the most popular elected officials in the state's history, with a career that's spanned decades.

Days away from retirement, he's the longest-serving secretary of state in Illinois, and the first African American to hold the office.

He officially retires from political life on Monday, when his successor will be sworn in.

CBS 2's Jim Williams recently spent time with White, starting at the place where his life in Chicago began.

"When I moved here from Alton, Illinois, we moved to a building that was here that was about four stories high. I lived on the third floor," White said.

On a cold Wednesday morning, White went back to the Near North Side, and the stretch of Division Street where he was raised, with family and neighbors who helped form his future.

"It's a wonderful place to grow up; a lot of Italians, people of diverse ethnic backgrounds. We got along well. We loved each other. We supported each other," White said.

Sports also played a huge role in White's life; gymnastics at Seward Park, softball, basketball, and baseball. 

Jesse White
Photo supplied to CBS

He was so talented at baseball, he earned a spot in the Chicago Cubs minor league system, where – like in his school days – he was in a small minority of African Americans.

Jesse White
Before starting a career in politics, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White was an accomplished athlete, playing minor league baseball for the Chicago Cubs organization in the 1950s and 1960s. Motion Inc

 How did White manage navigating a life facing challenging racial times?

"Most of my life, I've been involved with an integrated environment. There's this big wide wonderful world out there," he said. "I know that if you are to function in it, you have to figure out a way to get along with one another."

Those early lessons kept White strong when he went south for college at Alabama State.

He found he couldn't get a seat in the front of a bus, or at a restaurant. He said a young local pastor helped guide him: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

"We learned a lot from him; a man who had a giving and a caring spirit, and left an everlasting impression upon me," White said.

White later returned home to teach grade school in Chicago. Politics, though, called, and in his first try for public office, he was elected as an Illinois state representative in 1974, winning handily in a district that was 85% white.

"Tell me I cannot achieve? My attitude is, 'watch me,'" White said.

Jesse White
Jesse White is sworn in as Cook County Recorder of Deeds Photo supplied to CBS

Doubters in his own Democratic party watched as White was elected Cook County Recorder of Deeds in 1992 and 1996, and they watched again when he first ran for Illinois Secretary of State in 1998.

"When I was told not to waste my time, my efforts, or my energies, and try to become secretary of state, I said, 'watch me,' and I averaged 14 to 16 events every day," he said.

White said his first goal on the new job was change in the wake of the licenses for bribes scandal that ultimately led to the conviction of Gov. George Ryan, White's predecessor as secretary of state.

"When I came to this office, the office was under a cloud of controversy. Drivers' licenses were being sold, employees were required to buy fundraising tickets, do political work," White said.

White said he put a quick end to all that. He also expanded the state's organ donation program, and created stricter provisions for teen drivers.

"We've saved a lot of lives as a result," he said.

White said he's saved lives in another way; keeping kids "on the straight and narrow" with the famed Jesse White Tumbling Team, a group he founded in 1959.

"Never would I have imagined that I would have been working as a volunteer in a program for 64 years with over 18,500 young people," he said.

Jesse White Tumblers
Photo supplied to CBS

The rules are strict, and former tumbler turned coach Emmanuel McGhee said "Mr. White" is all for "tough love."

"We have to be on time. He's military, so to be early is to be on time, and he drills that to this day," McGhee said.

A friend of 40 years, Peter Birnbaum said while White is retiring from office, he'll be busier than ever: helping friends, neighbors, and people he's never even met.

"He's able to do these things, because he takes just a very simple, pragmatic, and thoughtful approach to life; which is being of service to others, and particularly the most vulnerable children among us," he said.

Even at age 88.

"I've enjoyed the experiences that I've had, things I've done in life, places where I've gone, the work I've been involved with. I've had a wonderful ride," White said.

There's one more thing we want to tell you about White. After college, he was a U.S. Army paratrooper, and he jumped out of airplanes a total of 35 times. He loves to talk about it to this day.

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