From the sweltering Mississippi of 1964’s “Freedom Summer” to Washington’s marbled corridors of power to the rough-and-tumble of Illinois politics, Larry Hansen devoted his nearly 50-year career to making American democracy work better.
Hansen, vice president of the Joyce Foundation in Chicago since 1994 and former aide to both former Vice President Walter Mondale and U.S. Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III, died of cancer at his home in River Forest, Illinois on November 15, 2010. He was 69.
As Program Officer of the Joyce Foundation’s Money and Politics Program, one of his signature achievements was to help create an infrastructure of campaign reform groups in the Midwest, the region in which the Foundation focuses its grant-making. Under Hansen’s leadership, the Money and Politics Program has also engaged scholars and practitioners in electoral reform from across the nation to help support the work of The Midwest Democracy Network, a coalition of state-based reform groups in Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota funded by Joyce.
“Larry Hansen did more than any other individual to nurture the development of new organizations, programs and activities dedicated to improving the integrity and effectiveness of American elections,” said Thomas Mann, Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington and a national expert on political reform. “His rich experience in politics and government, deep understanding and appreciation of history, and signature wit and good humor made Larry an inspiring and beloved figure in American politics.”
Hansen focused most recently on reform of redistricting, the process by which state legislatures redraw political boundaries after each U.S. Census. But he saw redistricting reform as just one piece of a broader reform agenda that also included campaign financing, judicial elections, government transparency and accountability and other areas vital to a well-functioning democracy.
“Larry had a lively, sometimes puckish, but always generous intellect and an absolutely unshakable belief that we share a responsibility to make the world a better place,” said Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, one of several state reform organizations funded by the Money and Politics Program at Joyce. “Of all his many contributions, I think his greatest is planting that same belief in all of the many people he mentored. He is always going to live on in the little bit of him he leaves with each of us.”
Hansen displayed that “puckish” sense of humor in a January 2010 memo to friends and colleagues notifying them that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer that had spread to his brain.
“A funny thing happened to me on the way to my 69th birthday celebration,” Hansen wrote, describing the symptoms that led him to his doctor’s office and the subsequent diagnosis. Referring to upcoming chemotherapy, he went on to say: “I have been assured on good authority that folks eager to see me without my familiar ‘comb-over’ will have a chance before long: I trust it will be becoming.”
Ellen Alberding, president of the Joyce Foundation, spoke of the notable personal and professional qualities that characterized Hansen’s approach to his work.
“Larry brought a great sense of humanity, leavened with humor, to every task. He was a joy to work with: kind, knowledgeable, opinionated and passionate. He was also a brilliant writer and editor, and a highly skilled and persuasive public speaker. His impact in the field of philanthropy was truly significant, ” Alberding said.
Before joining Joyce in 1994, Hansen served as Research Professor and Director of the Democracy Agenda Project at George Washington University’s Center for Communications studies, and as Vice President of the Roosevelt Center for American Policy Studies. Prior to that, he served as an assistant to Mondale and Stevenson and to former Illinois Superintendent of Public Education Michael Bakalis.
Hansen served as Mondale’s sole on-the-road companion, political advisor and general troubleshooter in 1982-83, in the months leading up to Mondale’s formal announcement that he would seek the presidency in 1984. During that time, the two attended hundreds of events and appearances in 46 states, Canada and Europe.
“We traveled the campaign trail together all over this country. We talked about everything. Larry was gifted, funny, wise and competitive. He also liked to order, on a daily basis, an adequate supply of sweet rolls,” Mondale said. “He had this gift of calming down matters that had gotten out of control. Everybody liked him. Larry was a blessing to all of us who loved people and politics. Joan and I send our prayers for the loss of this extraordinarily gifted and kind man.”
From 1974 to 1981, Hansen was special assistant and then administrative assistant to Sen. Stevenson. In the latter position, he supervised a 30-person staff in Washington, Chicago and Springfield.
Hansen equally enjoyed the intellectual challenge of issues and policy and the hand-to-hand combat that characterizes Illinois’ special brand of politics.
“Larry’s life was devoted to public service,” said Stevenson. “For Larry, public service was more than a citizen’s duty. It was also an intellectual challenge and occupation. Larry had a wry sense of humor, a capacious memory and a talent for articulation that made good use of his political experience for the amusement and edification of his many friends. He’ll be missed by his friends – and by a country that misses his kind.”
Bakalis described Hansen’s life as “a life of purpose.”
“Larry Hansen was one of those rare people who took issues, politics and history seriously and actually did something concrete to make things better. But he also kept everything in perspective with his great sense of humor. His was a life of purpose and he made a difference.”
Hansen’s career was also characterized by a desire to help the underdog – whether in the U.S. or in Peru, where he worked with fellow students to build the first modern sanitation facilities in two barrios of Lima in 1962.
Much to the consternation of his parents given the risks involved, Hansen drove to Mississippi in the summer of 1964 to work with local civil rights activists and lawyers to register African Americans to vote. What became known as “Freedom Summer” was remembered for its historic achievements—but also for the brutal murders of three civil rights workers by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Hansen, who grew up in Elgin, earned a bachelor’s degree in History and Political Science from the University of Illinois.
After graduating from the U of I, where he served as Student Senate President, Hansen interned as a staff assistant in the Illinois General Assembly. It was there that he met Stevenson, who was elected with a distinguished group of other reformers in the now famous 1964 at-large election. When Stevenson decided to run for State Treasurer in 1966, he asked Larry to head up an ambitious and eminently successful youth operation, which played a prominent role in the campaign. Notwithstanding a Republican year that saw the defeat of legendary U.S. Senator Paul Douglas, Stevenson eked out a 40,000-vote margin over Harris Rowe to become State Treasurer.
It was in that ‘66 campaign that Hansen met his future wife, Margaret “Marge” Rybicki, to whom he was married for 41 years. Also during that campaign, he met his lifelong friend, public affairs executive Rick Jasculca.
“It would be difficult to overstate just how much Larry energized young people in an off-year election—for the office of State Treasurer, no less,” Jasculca recalled. “Larry was passionate, committed, charismatic, and his enthusiasm was contagious. It is not a reach to say categorically that he helped launch an entire generation of political activists, myself included.”
Hansen was also a Member of the Board of the University YMCA at the University of Illinois and of the Donors Forum, and Chair of the Advisory Board of Illinois Issues.
In addition to his wife, Hansen is survived by his mother, Jeanne Hansen; sisters Janis (David) Duewel and Candace; brother Lance (Sue); brother- and sister-in-law John and Patricia Brown; and many nieces and nephews.
Visitation will be held on Thursday, November 18 from 3:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. at Cumberland Chapels, 8300 West Lawrence, Norridge, IL.
A funeral mass will be celebrated Friday, November 19 at 10:00 a.m. at St. Thecla Catholic Church, 6725 West Devon Avenue, Chicago. The mass will be preceded by final viewing and prayers at Cumberland Chapels at 9:00 a.m. Internment will be private.
Memorials may be sent to: the University YMCA at the University of Illinois, 1001 S. Wright St., Champaign, IL 61820, or to Illinois Issues, HRB 10, University of Illinois Springfield, One University Plaza, Springfield, IL 62703-5407.
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Rick Jasculca, 312-337-7400 or 312-953-6858 (cell)
Bill Strong, 312-573-5474 or 312-543-0063 (cell)
Cumberland Chapels, 708-456-3800
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Midwest Democracy Network partner memoriams:
- Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School
- Campaign Finance Institute
- Common Cause Wisconsin
- Heartland Democracy
- Illlinois Campaign for Political Reform
- League of Women Voters of Ohio
- League of Women Voters of Wisconsin
- Ohio Citizen Action Money in Politics Project
Wisconsin Democracy Campaign
- Chicago Tribune | Page 2 | Online Guest Book
- Courier News
- Daily Herald
- Illinois Issues
- Pioneer Press
- Washington Post