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A gentle giant just fell. Every person living in Illinois owes him an enormous debt of gratitude. The state’s business leaders, politicians, and reporters should hang their heads in shame for not having followed his lead.
Jack O. Roeser passed away today at the age of 90. I was on his radio show a few months ago, followed by a hugely enjoyable lunch, and I talked with him about scheduling another appearance on his show again just a couple weeks ago. I never got the follow-up call.
Jack was a successful businessman, turning the Carpentersville, Illinois-based Otto Engineering into a highly regarded and successful business designing and manufacturing precision instruments for demanding customers around the world. He successfully handed the family-owned business off to his son, Otto, one of the highest accomplishments any businessman can attain, and perhaps the achievement in a life full of them that he was most proud of.
Jack transformed Carpentersville, too, by supporting the purchase, renovation, and re-sale of hundreds of homes in the community. Entire neighborhoods were given a second life due to his vision and generosity. I doubt there is another businessman in the world who did as much for his local community.
The contributions made by Jack that touched the most lives were in the realm of politics and public policy. Jack was a conservative who put his money, time, and reputation behind his convictions. If you live outside Illinois and are reading this, you probably cannot imagine how rare, even precious, he was. The number of business leaders in Illinois with courage and conviction can be counted on one hand.
For twenty-five years Republicans controlled the governor’s mansion in Springfield and doled out favors and protection to their business friends. During those years, business leaders saw no need to support free-market ideas, or candidates who promised lower taxes or less regulation, or even to get engaged in grassroots politics. They sat on the sidelines and watched corruption spread through government and apathy destroy the Republican Party. The “Reagan Revolution” completely bypassed the State of Illinois.
By the time Democrats captured the governorship in 2003 (and ever since), there was little to stand in the way of the wave of corruption, union-dictated legislation, irresponsible borrowing, and massive tax hikes. A decade later, the state is an economic basket case. Men of integrity rightly fear getting involved in politics. Conservatives – indeed, idealists of any ideological stripe — are scorned and ignored.
Jack Roeser was the exception. He poured millions of dollars of his own money into conservative candidates, devoted thousands of hours to trying to steer the Republican Party away from the swamp of corruption and appeasement, educated millions of people through his nonprofit organization (Family Taxpayers Foundation) and more recently Champion News. He showed up, spoke out, and was willing to fight.
I met Jack back in 1984, shortly after The Heartland Institute was founded. We worked together on school reform and came close to getting school vouchers enacted… a reform that would have transformed the lives of millions of Illinoisans by now, if only the state’s political establishment had the courage and vision to follow Jack’s lead. In 2000, The Heartland Institute recognized Jack with our Heartland Liberty Prize, which he proudly displayed in his Carpentersville office for many years afterwards.
Jack was everything you would expect a great man to be: stubborn, smart, strategic, principled, and honest. As a younger man he could be imperious, controlling, and quick to anger. He was entitled to all these things. Illinois needed it. Young kids like me needed to see it and learn from it. As he got older, he also got kinder, turning into a warm and talkative friend, a mentor, and a font of wise aphorisms and funny jokes.
Illinois lost a giant today, a leader, and a conservative. Who will take his place?