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Columnist
A towering monument for six forgotten victims of corruption
By Chuck Goudie | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 3/16/2009 12:08 AM

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God willing, one day former Gov. George Ryan will be out of prison and return to some of his favorite things in life, such as lunch with his wife Lura Lynn at Gibson's or Shaw's Crab House in Chicago.

As of now, he's scheduled for freedom on July Fourth of next year. He'll be 76. The numbers are all so tidy.

Mr. Ryan will be giddy on that first day that he and Lura Lynn climb into the conversion van that got very little use during his six-year prison term and drive up I-57 from Kankakee.

Then, once they are on the Dan Ryan Expressway, it will come into view: that glorious skyline of Chicago; the one that the disgraced governor saw only in his dreams from the stiff mattress in his federal prison cell.

"There it is," George will say to Lura Lynn, "The Sears Tower."

"I've been waiting to see it again with my own eyes. Now I'm home and our nightmare is over."

"Oh George," Lura Lynn will say. "It's not the Sears Tower any more. They changed the name while you were in prison. It's now called the Willis Tower."

Mrs. Ryan will sheepishly utter the word "Willis," knowing how it will jolt her husband's nerves.

And with that, the name change for the Sears Tower will all be worth it.

As long as George Ryan lives, every time he sees the magnificent 110-story skyscraper, he will hear the name Willis and be forced to remember the six children from the Willis family who died in a fiery crash as a result of corruption in his office.

Of course the Sears Tower is not being renamed in honor of those children. It is merely a coincidence that the British insurance company which bought the naming rights to the building is called Willis.

But it is a sweet, just coincidence nonetheless.

Besides, Sears hasn't really had any connection with the tower in years.

Former Gov. Ryan needs to be reminded of those kids every day for the rest of his life. And so do we.

They were the ultimate, unknowing victims of systemic Illinois corruption that began before Ryan, continued with him and spread beyond him.

Mr. Ryan never acknowledged that he was to blame for their deaths, by overseeing a network of corrupt employees who were pressured to feed his political appetite with bribes collected from un-roadworthy truck drivers.

Ricardo Guzman was one of them. Unable to speak English, Mr. Guzman had been in five accidents and racked up eight tickets in his driving career.

But when George Ryan was Illinois Secretary of State, Guzman qualified for a Commercial Driver's License because he passed another kind of test. The pocket test. He had a pocket and it was full of cash.

On Nov. 8, 1994, with an Illinois trucker's license in the pocket where his cash used to be, Guzman set off for Wisconsin in a tractor trailer.

He was on I-94 near Milwaukee.

So was the Willis family, in their minivan.

It was Election Day in Illinois and the Rev. Scott Willis and his wife Janet had just voted before setting off on a family outing to the north. They both had voted for Secretary of State George Ryan, who on that very day was running for re-election.

As the Willis' were driving behind Guzman's truck, some other truckers saw that Guzman's taillight rig had broken away and was dangling off the back. They tried to warn him on the radio. But since Mr. Guzman couldn't understand English - a skill required to obtain a legal license, he kept driving.

The chunks of metal fell off the truck and shot into the Willis' vehicle. Into the gas tank. It blew up and started a fast, terrible fire.

Six of the family's children - Ben, Joe, Sam, Hank, Elizabeth and Peter - died dreadful, burning deaths.

They carried the name Willis to the grave; and that is the Willis name that Gov. Ryan and all of us should think of when we see the newly-christened Willis Tower.

That day they died, George Ryan was re-elected. Through the trials and testimony, we now also know that the cover-up began at that time-an effort by Ryan and others to make sure no one knew that the Willis children didn't really have to die on Nov. 8, 1994.

Something else was in the headlines on that very date.

On Nov. 8, 1994, the newspapers carried stories of Sears' announcement that it was giving up ownership of the tower that carried its name. That was the very first move that led to last week's name change.

The Willis Tower.

Consider it a monument to six innocents.

Embrace it, because we can't embrace them.

• Chuck Goudie, whose column appears each Monday, is the chief investigative reporter at ABC 7 News in Chicago. The views in this column are his own and not those of WLS-TV. He can be reached by email at chuckgoudie@gmail.com.