Former Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, who fought through professional adversity and personal tragedy to become one of the state’s most respected political leaders, has died at age 76.
Suburban-raised Ryan, who served two terms as the state’s top attorney and was defeated in 2002 in his bid for governor by Rod Blagojevich, died peacefully at home on Sunday after several long-term illnesses, according to a statement from his family.
“From the moment I met him until his death, Jimmy has always strived to do the right thing and help people,” said his 54-year-old wife, Marie. “That was who he was and he was very successful at it.”
Born in Chicago and raised in the Villa Park home built by his father and hero, Edward, Ryan showed boxing skills in high school and won a Golden Gloves amateur boxing title at age 17. In 2013, Ryan sat in the corner with his grandson Joey when he won the Chicago Golden Gloves.
Ryan, a devout Catholic, graduated from St. Procopius Academy, now Benet Academy in Lisle, before attending neighboring Illinois Benedictine College, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. He later received his law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law.
Shortly after graduating, he married his high school sweetheart, Marie Pahls. They had six children.
Ryan joined the DuPage County state attorney’s office in 1971, and five years later became a state attorney general’s candidate. He lost to fellow Republican J. Michael Fitzsimmons in the GOP primaries, but ran again in 1984, this time beating Fitzsimmons in the primaries and winning the election the following November. He would earn reelection in 1988 and 1992.
Ryan’s tenure at DuPage included the prosecution of Rolando Cruz and Alejandro Hernandez for the 1983 kidnapping and murder of 10-year-old Jeanine Nicarico. The two men were initially sentenced to death, but after several appeals and two new trials, both were acquitted and another man was eventually convicted of the girl’s murder.
As a state attorney, Ryan established himself as a child advocate, establishing the state’s first center for child abuse victims and crackdowns on lax parents.
He first ran for Attorney General in 1990, losing narrowly to Roland Burris. When Burris failed to run for governor in 1994, Ryan ran again and won. He was easily elected to a second term in 1998.
As Attorney General, Ryan advocated anti-crime legislation, including “truth-in-sentencing” measures that limit how much time inmates can have shaved off their jail terms, and require those convicted of murder to serve 100% of their sentences. He also joined a nationwide lawsuit against tobacco companies that resulted in the state receiving $9.1 billion.
Ryan was not afraid to upset the GOP establishment during his years as attorney general, so much so that some influential Republican power brokers quietly lent support and campaign money for Blagojevich ahead of the 2002 governor’s race.
“Although it was his life’s work, Jim never felt really comfortable in politics,” Stephen Culliton, a former chief justice of DuPage County and a 50-year-old friend of Ryan’s, said in the family statement. “He always strove to do the right thing and make the lives of others a little better. And when the inevitable conflicts arose between the politically advantageous and the ‘right’, he always did the right thing. His honesty was a beacon for all of us who worked with him. He will be greatly missed.”
John Pearman, a longtime top assistant to Ryan in the attorney general’s office, called him “an officer as good as Illinois has ever known.”
“He never stopped trying to help people — women, children, crime victims,” Pearman added. “He was tireless and imperishable.”
After his tenure as Attorney General ended in 2003, Ryan resumed his law practice and founded The Center for Civic Leadership in his alma mater, which became Benedictine University in 1996.
“I love government. I love public service,” Ryan told Burt Constable of the Daily Herald in 2009.
Ryan’s life was also ravaged by personal tragedies.
His wife nearly died in 1997, the same year their 12-year-old daughter, Annie, died of an undiagnosed brain tumor. For a decade, his 24-year-old son, Patrick, died from a self-inflicted gunshot.
Ryan himself had several bouts of cancer, including a battle with lymphoma that took place while he was running for governor.
“Ryan has endured the deaths of two of his six children, nearly lost his beloved wife of 54 to a heart attack, beat cancer three times and successfully recovered from heart surgery,” the family statement said. “Being a public figure, most of this pain was borne in the public eye, and his mercies under duress has been an inspiration to thousands of Illinoisans, with whom he has kept in close contact over the years.”
Ryan’s children, John, Jim, Matt and Amy, described him on Sunday as “a wonderful father and grandfather, who taught us by example how to handle life’s greatest joys and hardest losses with dignity and grace. “
“For all he accomplished during his career, he will be most remembered for the way he lived his life. Family, faith and service to others define our father’s remarkable life,” they said.
Current Attorney General Kwame Raoul released a statement Sunday night saying Ryan will forever be known for his strength and dedication to service.
“May his courage and selflessness in the face of adversity serve as an inspiration to all,” he said.
Information about the funeral was not immediately available Sunday evening.