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Gov. Pat Quinn: Student reporter

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn will deliver his budget address this week to the state legislature, his fourth since taking office. The governor is expected to pontificate on Medicaid spending, taxes and public pensions.

Four decades ago, Quinn preached about basketball, hair styles and the Vietnam War. He was a columnist at his university's newspaper. Those college writings reveal many of the same traits Illinoisans now see in their governor.

Patrick J. Quinn, a Hinsdale native and Fenwick High School grad, went East for college to that prestigious Jesuit school in our nation's capitol, Georgetown University.

Bill Clinton had gone there and got deeply involved in student government. Pat Quinn focused more on a different extra-curricular.

"You know, I liked sports, and I was a pretty good writer," Quinn said in an interview last week.

So Quinn wrote, about sports, for the student newspaper: The Hoya.

"I would have to say our teams weren't as good when I was in college as they are now," Quinn recalled. "Georgetown - mighty basketball team. This year - doing pretty well. I think in my four years at Georgetown, the best we did was one year we made the NIT."

And, when he became sports editor, he got a column called "Under the Table," though the governor said he has no memory of why he called it that.

In some of those columns, he went after the basketball team.

"Invariably the Hoyas play first rate basketball against well-regarded foes like Holy Cross and Boston College, but then they turn around and look like Hoyettes when they meet stiffs such as Fairleigh Dickinson and Catholic U," Quinn wrote in the March 6, 1969 edition.

Quinn also regularly found reasons to pick on the university's Athletic Board.

"Everyone hopes that the Georgetown Athletic Board has learned its lesson. Secret firings, procrastination and wishy-washiness cannot be the methods of a legitimate decision-making group," he wrote on March 20, 1969.

The columns show Quinn adored the internal politics of the athletic department: he argued that more money was needed for sports programs and he wasn't afraid to criticize coaches.

All the while, he had an eye on larger issues. Writing about poor turnout for a football game scheduled on the same day as a peace march, Quinn wrote that sports and school spirit "pale to nothingness in comparison with infinitely more important things like trying to stop the Vietnam War." That column appeared on November 20, 1969.

He got to expound on those larger issues the next year, when he wrote a weekly news column. It was called "Up Against It."

"I think I stole that from Mike Royko. I think," Quinn said.

He did. Royko - that legendary Chicago newsman - had published a book, a collection of columns a few years earlier - also titled "Up Against It."

"The most vivid column I can remember off the top of my head was I went to Arlington National Cemetery and I interviewed about three or four of the grave diggers there. This was during the Vietnam War," Quinn recalled.

"Cadillac works on a crew with two other men, Earl and Mayo," Quinn's column read on February 19, 1970. "The job is digging graves, either with a reverse hoe or by hand....They also drop the casket into the ground - sometimes even joking a little if everything doesn't go right."

Much like Quinn the politician, Quinn the columnist kept his opinions of war separate from his empathy for service members. In a November 12, 1970 column headlined "Vietnamized Vets," he blamed "windblown politician(s)" like President Nixon, while writing of soldiers injured even after the war was supposed to be "winding down."

A journalistic hero of Quinn's was Studs Terkel, so the young reporter attempted an oral history approach. Instead of a government official, he'd talk with the man on the street.

Like the funeral home worker who buries the poor. Or the owner of a school for barbers, his business slowed by the long hair styles of the early 1970s. A line in that column betrayed Quinn's curmudgeonly disdain for anything flashy - fashion or otherwise.

"Persons who used to wear bowling shirts or grass-stained sweatshirts while cruising the neighborhood are now running the streets with capped teeth, sauna belts, duded up hair-do's and tricky mod fashions of the all-leather suit, furry Icelandic sheepskin coat, and Indian headband variety," he wrote on March 12, 1970.

Quinn's preferred clothing was jeans and gym shoes, according to fellow Georgetown Hoya editor, Eduardo Cue.

"He was very easy-going, nothing formal about him at all," Que said last week in an interview from Paris, where he now lives.

Cue went on to a long career in journalism. He remembers the Hoya newsroom as an interesting collection of personalities and political persuasions. It's no surprise, Quinn was a liberal.

"There was a lot of kind of bantering around - a lot of kind of kind political bantering," Cue said. "And maybe saying some things that are a little bit outrageous as college kids will do. But it was always in very good humor. That is the one thing that I remember about Pat Quinn....He was never trying to impose his ideas."

Quinn's columns did have humor, often accompanied by cynicism. He wrote of how Americans are more interested in bowling scores and sex lives than war and prejudice. In another, on February 13, 1970, he compared rats in the Washington streets to the politicians "operating" from the city.

"[That one is] a good example of the tone of the columns. A little edgy, a little bit sarcastic, with a sense of irony," said Don McNeil, another Hoya editor who shared a house with Quinn senior year. "If you watch closely and listen closely to his public appearances these days, that sense of irony is often still there. And a sense of frustration."

McNeil later moved to Chicago and remains close with Quinn (even after the governor fired him from the board of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission last year).

Through his writings, Quinn tried to put distance between himself and the elite university. On February 27, 1970, he called Georgetown an "absurd school...pretentiously wise while glitteringly selfish." On October 29, 1970, Quinn wrote that the university needed to expand its reach beyond its "ivy walls" and to bring adult education to DC residents trapped in jobs a young Quinn describes as meaningless.

Quinn's columns drew the ire of another Hoya columnist, the late Charley Impaglia, who on October 15, 1970, called Quinn's approach to populism both condescending and unrealistic. Impaglia also knocked Quinn's writing.

"Not since the Norman Invasion," Impaglia wrote, "has the tongue of Britain been so battered."

McNeil said there was no love between Impaglia and Quinn.

"Charley did not attempt to get along," McNeil said. "We actually had an unusual amount of calm usually and peace, in the Hoya office. But those two, I would say, they did not get along. And Pat would manifest that by staying away from Charley."

"I never had enemies, you know," Quinn said when asked of Impaglia. "Some people criticize me, and believe it or not, even in politics. You know once in a while you got to have a pretty tough hide."

Spoken like a man who, as governor, shrugs off a 30-percent public approval rating and strained relations with legislative leaders.

Quinn's reaction to poor approval ratings is reminiscent of another trait he showed in college. McNeil said Quinn went his own way. He was a good student when it was not popular to care. And at a time of great experimentation, Quinn had a conservative lifestyle - didn't drink a lot, didn't do drugs.

"Which was difficult in those days. I did not either, and I know there was a lot of pressure - a lot of peer pressure - which he successfully resisted. And I think he was not afraid to be looked upon as different, when it came to those sorts of things," McNeil said.

Quinn takes pride in not fitting stereotypes, McNeil said.

And in Illinois politics, it is hard to see where Quinn fits in. He's an accidental leader who can win an election but can't seem to master the governing. Kind of like Dan Walker, the single term governor whose campaign Quinn went to work for shortly after he graduated from Georgetown.

Quinn's fellow Hoya editors said he had no interest in making a career out of journalism. And now he's the scrutinized authority figure, getting ripped by columnists and badgered by reporters.

"I thoroughly enjoy the press conferences and the back-and-forth," Quinn said. "I think reporters are the best thing since Swiss cheese."

I suppose that's just a little bit of the sarcasm readers of the Georgetown Hoya came to expect from Pat Quinn four decades ago.

Hoya news clips via the University of Illinois' Digital Newspaper Collections.

In the audio story, Pat Quinn's columns are read by WBEZ's Don Hall.

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