As the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, I don’t pay an undue amount of attention to the weather. However, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019, was different.
I woke up to a heavy snowstorm barreling across Illinois and was concerned because the Institute had a public event scheduled that evening with state Rerp. Emanuel “Chris“ Welch. Mr. Welch planned to make the normally five-and-a-half-hour drive that day from his home near Chicago to southern Illinois. Given that it was already snowing heavily in Chicago, I assumed we would have to cancel our Pizza & Politics event with Mr. Welch.
Our staff contacted him, saying his safety was our primary concern and that we had no problem rescheduling the event. Mr. Welch said this was not necessary and that, after he dug himself out of his driveway, he would begin the long car drive down the length of Illinois. He checked in periodically as made slow, but steady, progress down Interstate 57.
Rep. Welch arrived in Carbondale about an hour before our event and graciously visited with me, SIUC’s chancellor, and the university’s chief of staff.
His presentation to the curious and excited students, staff, and community members who assembled in our lobby was informal and impressive. He spoke candidly about his career in politics, the challenges facing Illinois, and the critical importance of higher education to the future of our state. After he spoke, answered questions, and the official event ended, Rep. Welch chatted unhurriedly with students who lingered with follow-up questions. Then he grabbed a piece of pizza, thanked the Institute for our invitation, and headed out for the three-hour drive to Springfield, much of it on dark and daunting two-lane highways. I later told him that he will officially be inducted into the Institute’s Hall of Fame for his insistence on honoring his commitment to get to Carbondale despite the inclement weather, as well as for his stellar presentation.
I first met Mr. Welch several months earlier when he visited SIU Carbondale in his capacity as the chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. He had scheduled field hearings in Carbondale and Edwardsville to understand better the challenges facing the SIU system. He asked if he could stop by the Institute. I eagerly agreed, and we had a wide-ranging conversation about government, politics, and education.
He was serious and thoughtful and also warm and engaging. He listened more than he spoke. We discussed our favorite political books. He was intrigued by a book on my shelf, “American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley — His Battle for Chicago and the Nation,” by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor. As it happened, I had a second copy of the book at home and insisted that he take the one in my office. “Are you sure you want to part with one of your favorite books?” he asked with a broad smile. I assured him that I was confident that he would provide it with a good home.
The Institute recently asked 25 prominent Illinoisans to recommend five books about the state to provide students a nuanced, well-rounded understanding of our state. We received recommendations from U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, former Gov. Jim Edgar, former U.S. Congressman and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Rep. Welch, and others. Mr. Welch’s intriguing recommendations were “Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago” by Mike Royko, “Mayor Harold Washington: Champion of Race and Reform” by Roger Biles, “Dreams from My Father” by Barack Obama, “Our Culture of Pandering” by Paul Simon, and “American Pharaoh,” the book I had given him.
After COVID-19 hit last spring, the Institute created a program called Understanding Our New World, an ongoing series of virtual conversations with international, national, and Illinois experts and leaders. One of our first interviews was with Mr. Welch. He was hopeful, forthcoming, and incisive as he discussed the state budget, higher education, police reform, and economic justice. He spoke vividly about the political muscle of Richard J. Daley and the inspirational leadership of Harold Washington, Paul Simon, and Barack Obama.
Chris Welch faces monumental challenges as the new speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. Time will tell how he meets the trials and tribulations that await. What I do know is that he will bring to his work an enormous reservoir of decency, intelligence, compassion, and humility. My guess is that Illinoisans will soon feel that they are very lucky to be able to call Chris Welch, “Mr. Speaker.”
John T. Shaw is the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.