And now, we are four.

My editor sent me an email last week, expressing sympathy on the loss of my friend and former Illinois Senate colleague, Jerry Joyce. She assumed that I had heard, but I hadn’t.

In truth, since losing a re-election bid in 1980, I have visited Springfield only four times, and not at all in the past two decades. I decided not to be “the ghost of Banquo” and to leave that chapter of my life behind.

That doesn’t mean that I have not treasured the friendships I made during my eight years in the Senate, or that fellow members of “the Crazy Eight” are not often in my mind. I am always so focused on the present that I seldom think to reconnect with the past. It is a human failing of which I am painfully aware.

That pain is sharpest when one of our group passes. Joyce is the fifth member of the Crazy Eight to die, leaving four of us as survivors. If you are wondering how five plus four equals eight, let me explain.

When I attended the orientation meeting for new senators after the 1972 election, I looked up some newly elected senators who had been identified as promising progressives and suggested that we set up an informal group to help each other understand the legislative process.

Ken Buzbee of Carbondale said that’s exactly what he was thinking and Betty Ann Keegan of Rockford immediately agreed. Standing with us was Terry Bruce of Olney who had been elected in 1970 and wanted to join us as a kindred spirit. That gave us someone who could answer our questions and help us adjust to our new responsibilities.

Then Keegan suggested that we ought to also invite Dawn Clark Netsch of Chicago. I objected to anyone from Chicago, lest that person provide a pipe back to City Hall. Keegan assured me, “You’ll like Dawn; she’s different.” It turned out that Dawn was one of those North Shore liberals and not in Mayor Richard J. Daley’s organization.

The first thing we decided was that we should seek committee assignments that would place at least one of us on every committee. Then, we would meet every evening to go over testimony, so that all would have a clear picture of what was in process. And that’s what we did, night after night.

There was no obligation to vote as a bloc; just to understand the issues at hand. The camaraderie forged in that daily exchange of honest information kept us together and talking for years.

We suffered a blow when Keegan died one year after being elected. She developed a dry cough during that first orientation meeting, the first symptom of the cancer that would take her life.

But Rockford was supplied with a number of truly impressive, politically active women and they sent a great replacement, Vivian Hickey. Our daily meetings went on, but did not go unnoticed and we were challenged again and again in caucus about our “mini-caucus.” I defended “the Democratic Study Group” again and again to uncomprehending Chicagoans.

The 1974 election produced three more promising senators: Bill Morris of Waukegan, Jerry Joyce of Reddick (near Kankakee), and Vince Demuzio of Carlinville. We linked up with them to form the Crazy Eight, so called because leadership could not dictate our votes. We were determined to remain free to vote on the merits of each bill.

One by one, we left the Senate. The last one to remain was Vince, who died in office in 2004. Later, we lost Dawn; then Vivian; now Jerry. Terry, Ken, Bill, and I remain.

Jerry was exceptional in a number of ways. He was a farmer and our voice in agricultural issues. He won his senate bid by defeating one of the most powerful Republicans in the state, Ed McBroom, who led the formidable Republican machine in Kankakee County.

Jerry was perhaps the most approachable person in the chamber. He was a close friend of Phil Rock, majority leader and a loyal member of the Chicago Democratic Party; Phil was a friend, not a boss. Jerry remained our trusted friend and ally.

One year, Jerry asked me to join a senate delegation headed to Seattle for a congressional conference on storing nuclear waste. He wanted to block what was basically an unsound proposal and knew I was of like mind. We got it done and enjoyed delightfully gregarious dinners in the bargain.

He was a remarkably astute politician and one of the most open and engaging people I have known. Now he is gone and memory of that unusual group is left for but four of us.

Don Wooten of Rock Island is a former state senator and veteran broadcaster. Contact him at donwooten29@gmail.com.


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