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Good old days are gone as George Ryan returns home

Governor-elect George Ryan his running mate Corinne Wood celebrate their victory Nov. 3 1998 Palmer House. Phoby Tom Cruze

Governor-elect George Ryan and his running mate Corinne Wood celebrate their victory on Nov. 3, 1998 at the Palmer House. Photo by Tom Cruze

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Updated: March 2, 2013 6:56AM

In 1992, I was invited to a dinner with George Ryan, though Ryan had no idea I was going to be there.

The dinner, a monthly ritual held at the old Como Inn in Chicago, had a name, according to former Ryan Chief of Staff Scott Fawell. “They called it the Over the Hill Gang,” he told me on Tuesday.

Ryan, who was in those days Illinois secretary of state, regularly gathered with a bunch of guys with whom he had served in the Illinois General Assembly in the ’70s and ’80s. Some had gone on to be lobbyists, like Pete Peters. Some had moved on to local government, like Henry Klosak, president of the town of Cicero. And some had risen in the ranks of the Republican Party, like Don Totten, an early backer of Ronald Reagan’s run for president.

Each month, one of them was required to pick up the check. And bring a “surprise” guest.

On one such evening, I was the “surprise.”

And not a good one for Klosak, on whom I had only recently done a series of investigative reports.

Totten, who had invited me, got quite a kick out of that.

But the larger purpose of this off-the-record gathering of flowing martinis, groaning platters of shrimp and pasta, and opinionated politicians, was to have no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners conversation. And some fun.

Klosak, as I recall, barely said a word in my presence, knowing that his driver, mob bookmaker Frank Maltese, was waiting for him outside and wouldn’t be any happier to see me than Klosak was.

But George Ryan, not a fan of mine nor of the NBC station for which I worked, had a lot to say. I appreciated his candor that night. And his grasp of issues.

“The funny thing about George,” said longtime NBC colleague and WCPT radio talk show host Dick Kay, “is that he was always the guy who could get along with everybody.”

Even with reporters he didn’t enjoy.

So much has happened since that dinner.

Klosak’s driver, Frank Maltese, was indicted. His wife, Betty Loren-Maltese, succeeded Klosak until she went to prison. Scott Fawell went to prison. And George Ryan, who rose all the way to the governor’s office, was convicted of corruption and went away as well.

At the age of 78, after spending more than five years locked up, he is finally coming home.

His is a complicated legacy.

Nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for putting a moratorium on executions in Illinois, he also is remembered as the secretary of state whose office traded bribes for commercial driver’s licenses, resulting in one horrific case in which six children were incinerated in the family van.

The Como Inn is gone. The Over the Hill Gang is disbanded. And George Ryan returns to a home filled with memories of a wife who died while he was away.

He’s done his time.

Here’s hoping the time he has left begins a better, brighter final chapter.

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