Gov. William G. Stratton (R-Morris): "Good government is good politics."

Every day, hundreds of legislators, staff and visitors to the state capitol complex pass through the doors of the large, 1950s-style office building just west of the Capitol. Most are familiar with the Stratton Building, but not all know about the building’s namesake, the 32nd Governor of Illinois, William G. Stratton (R-Morris).

Governor Stratton’s legacy to Illinois goes far beyond just a name on an office building. A World War II veteran, Congressman, State Treasurer, Governor and elder statesman, Stratton served Illinois for more than 60 years.  Stratton’s terms as Governor coincided with Dwight Eisenhower’s years in the White House, and his enthusiastic early embrace of Eisenhower’s interstate highway system continues to benefit Illinoisans today.

William Grant Stratton was born February 24, 1914. He learned the art of politics from his father, William J. Stratton, who served as Illinois Secretary of State from 1929 to 1933. In 1940, the younger Stratton was a candidate for Congress. At that time, Illinois was home to several Congressional districts, but also elected at-large representatives who ran statewide. It was this at-large seat which Stratton sought to claim, and so his first campaign was spent crisscrossing the entire state. It was to become a regular occurrence for Stratton, as he would campaign statewide eight times over the course of his career.

Victorious in 1940 at the age of 26, Stratton became the youngest member of the 77th Congress. Having already campaigned statewide, Stratton was a logical choice for a statewide office of a different kind, and so in 1942, he ran for and was elected State Treasurer. However, with the world at war, Stratton stepped down from the Treasurer’s office and volunteered for the Navy in 1944, serving in the Pacific Theater. With the end of the war, he returned home and again was elected to a Congressional seat in 1946. When his at-large Congressional seat was eliminated after that term, he returned to the treasurer’s office in 1950.

With Democratic Governor Adlai Stevenson leaving office to challenge Eisenhower for the Presidency in 1952, Stratton moved up once again, defeating the incumbent Lieutenant Governor to become, at age 38, the youngest Governor in the nation, and the youngest Governor of Illinois in 70 years.

Stratton was famous for the phrase, “good government is good politics.” As Governor, Stratton set about bringing Illinois’ government into the modern era. Stratton appointed the first female and African-American cabinet members in Illinois history. He worked closely with Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley to give Illinois a world-class international airport, later named O’Hare. To go with it, he and Daley believed Chicago should have a world-class convention center, and so McCormick Place was born.

With his fellow World War II veterans using the GI bill to attend college in numbers never before seen in America, Stratton saw the need for an expanded state university system. He paved the way for the creation of the University of Illinois Chicago, and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. His initiatives also included expansions and modernizations of the existing state university campuses. When SIUE’s first graduating class held its ceremony in 1960, they invited Governor Stratton to be their speaker. Perhaps remembering his grueling statewide campaigns for Congress, he launched the first legislative redistricting in more than 50 years, leading to representation that better reflected the changing nature of Illinois’ population.

Nowhere is Stratton’s impact felt more today, however, than on Illinois’ highways. With the Cold War looming, Eisenhower set about modernizing America’s then-inferior system of highways. He found an eager partner in Governor Stratton, who also served as chairman of the Governor’s Conference, and later president of the Council of State Governments. It was from this post, that Stratton found himself in the middle of developing the interstate system, as well as revolutions in traffic safety and highway construction. After his death, his wife Shirley said he considered one of his greatest accomplishments to be the first 200 miles of the Illinois Tollway which were built during his term.

Defeated for re-election in 1960, Stratton’s post-gubernatorial legacy was tainted by accusations of tax evasion. He was acquitted in 1965, and attempted a political comeback in 1968, only to lose in the primary. Stratton was a delegate to the Republican national convention twice more, and served on the Illinois Civil Service Commission until his death in 2001.

Among the pallbearers at Governor Stratton’s funeral were three of his successors in the Governor’s office, Governors Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar and George Ryan. Thompson called Stratton, “Illinois’ first progressive Governor. He modernized state government.”

In recognition of his service, a state park near his home town of Morris was named in his honor, as was a lock and dam on the Fox River and the quadrangle at SIU Edwardsville. Governor Stratton is buried at Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago.