Photographing History

Photographing History
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BY Dean Olsen
Courtesy of the Illinois Times

The date was Jan. 29, 2009, and Pat Quinn was sitting at his desk in the lieutenant governor’s office, writing notes for what would become his inaugural speech as governor while the state Senate, one floor above, considered voting to remove Rod Blagojevich from office.

A few feet away, camera in hand, was Springfield resident Lee Milner, capturing the scene from a pivotal moment in Illinois history.

That day’s Chicago Sun-Times sat on Quinn’s desk. The top headline, “His Last Stand,” referred to the ultimately futile speech Blagojevich would give in the state Senate chamber in Springfield before senators voted 59-0 to oust the disgraced Democratic governor as the final step of impeachment.

For Milner, who at 64 was volunteering his time as Quinn’s photographer and later would send the photographs to the Illinois State Archives, recording history was just his latest efforts at “making a difference.” 

Throughout his life, he would do just that by harnessing his work ethic, kind personality, self-deprecating humor and wide-ranging experience as a communicator and volunteer for state government, civic groups and nonprofits.

Now 78 and in declining health, Milner, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in December 2019, is reflective.

When it was evident that Gov. Rod Blagojevich would be removed by the Senate and Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn would become governor, I was asked to document his first day. I thought this was a historic picture with the newspaper headline “His Last Stand” with Blagojevich’s photo and Quinn in the background preparing the notes for his acceptance speech hours before the transition was to occur. (Lee Milner)

“I’m very fortunate in all kinds of respects,” he said. “I’m fortunate in what I’ve been able to do, who I’ve been able to meet, who I’ve been able to help, friends I’ve met along the way.”

Referring to lyrics from a Garth Brooks song, Milner said with a chuckle, “I’ve got friends in high places, not low places.”

He added: “Most of the people I’ve been around, I’ve been around leaders, being involved in the issues of the day, watching some very bright people perform. People like me help them stay ‘on message’ and get things across to the people.”

Readers of Illinois Times often have seen Milner’s work as a freelance photojournalist. But they may not realize they are viewing the work of someone known and respected by people in public life throughout Springfield and beyond for years.

“Lee is a man for all seasons,” Quinn, 75, said in a phone interview from Chicago. “He’s not a show horse or someone with braggadocio. He’s a down-to-earth, caring person. … I really, really, really enjoyed working with him. He’s a lot of fun.

“I think it’s a testament to his faith and stamina and just his good nature that he’s been able to battle this disease for as long as he has, and everybody’s rooting for him.”

Milner was born in Breese, the third of five children born to a Methodist minister father and homemaker mother. He graduated from high school in Beecher City in Effingham County and earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He worked as a photojournalist for the Effingham Daily News, where he met many state lawmakers, before being drafted into the U.S. Army in 1968.

Milner never went overseas where the Vietnam War was raging. He served his two-year hitch as a clerk and photojournalist at Army bases in North Carolina and South Carolina. After discharge, he attended the now-closed MacMurray College in Jacksonville, where one of his brothers was a professor. After a semester, he got a job at Memorial Health in Springfield as a photographer for a pathologist, Dr. Grant Johnson, at the recently opened Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

After several years of taking photos of surgeries, autopsies and Sangamon County coroner’s death investigations, Milner moved to Washington, D.C. He began working as a legislative coordinator for former U.S. House member George Shipley, a Democrat from Olney, whom Milner met while working in Effingham.

After a year, Milner returned to Springfield to marry Cindy Young, his wife of 49 years and now a state retiree, whom he met while working for Memorial. They would have two children, James, 39, a filmmaker, and Leanne Sappington, 42, an events coordinator. Milner’s children, and his 11-year-old grandson, Leanne’s son, all live in the Los Angeles area.

Lee Milner. (James Milner)

After Milner came back to Springfield from Washington, a legislator friend of his asked then-state Rep. Bill Redmond, a DuPage County Democrat who had recently been elected speaker of the Illinois House and was building out his staff, to consider hiring Milner.

Milner became Redmond’s assistant press secretary and worked for Redmond from 1975 to 1979.

“I loved it,” Milner said. “It was where the action was. There were some very intelligent, articulate people that went through the House of Representatives and went farther, as a lot of them did. So it was just exciting to be in a position like that and to think you were helping the community by helping people who were trying to do their best. I think that’s a place where you can do some real good.”

The legislature was a less-partisan place then, he said. It was before the passage of the 1980 Cutback Amendment, backed by Quinn, which reduced the size of the House by one-third. The constitutional amendment also eliminated three-member districts and cumulative, or “bullet” voting, which often resulted in at least one member of a different party representing a district.

While working for Redmond, Milner witnessed a rapt audience when former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley addressed the General Assembly.

A visit to the legislature by then-President Jimmy Carter also was memorable.

“I can’t get past his smile,” Milner said with a laugh. “He always had the best smile. He was very cordial to everybody, as I recall.”

Redmond encouraged Milner to apply to lead the communications office at the Illinois State Board of Education – “not because he wanted to get rid of me, but because he thought it would be a good opportunity,” Milner said.

The education agency had been reorganized when the state superintendent of schools position became a gubernatorial appointment rather than a statewide elected position.

Milner was hired in 1979 and would work there until his retirement in 2004, serving more than a half-dozen superintendents, including Joseph Cronin, Joseph Spagnolo, Glenn “Max” McGee and Ted Sanders, the father of current State Superintendent Tony Sanders.

Early in his 2016 campaign for president, Donald Trump held a rally at the BOS Center in Springfield. The estimated 10,000 people in attendance on Nov. 10, 2015, surpassed the previous records set by an Elton John concert and evangelist Beth Moore. Trump used his Springfield rally to call for a boycott of Starbucks because its new winter-themed cups didn’t make any reference to Christmas. (Lee Milner)

Answering questions from reporters could be stressful, especially when the topics involved could make the state board look bad, but Milner said his work with reporters rarely created tension with state superintendents and his other bosses.

“In most cases, we got along just fine and decided how to approach issues,” he said. “I knew what the reporters were interested in.”

Milner worked for the agency at a time when spokespersons in state government frequently spoke to reporters for attribution, instead of the current practice of frequently resorting to written statements, emails and text messages. Milner said he tried to cultivate professional relationships with the media to promote trust.

“I don’t know if I’m cut out for it or not, but it worked out well,” Milner said. “I like reporters, and I respect what they do. And the most important thing to think about is what reporters can make out of what you do – the good and the bad.”

WBEZ reporter Dave McKinney, a longtime Statehouse reporter for the Sun-Times, said Milner “showed utmost professionalism” at the State Board of Education. “His word was gold. He was accessible, and there was never any skepticism on my part that I wasn’t being told the truth.” 

Milner’s activities since retirement from the state included volunteer work with Network Knowledge, SIU Illinois State Employees Credit Union and the FBI Springfield Citizens Academy Alumni Association, which named its award of excellence after him. 

When a reporter was unable to use credentials to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, I was approved to attend. It was my first national convention, and I was thoroughly impressed. The final presentations were on an elaborate stage erected on the field of the Denver Broncos. After Barack Obama’s acceptance speech, the presidential nominee and vice-presidential nominee, Joe Biden, as well as their families, took to the stage to acknowledge the accolades of delegates and a stadium full of supporters. (Lee Milner)

His freelancing included photos for an Illinois news organization at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver when then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Chicago was nominated for what would become his first term as president.  

Milner said he volunteered his services for Quinn because the newly sworn-in governor, who ended up serving for six years, didn’t have a downstate photographer, and Milner was acquainted with members of Quinn’s staff.

“To be frank, I don’t think they cared if they had pictures,” Milner said, adding that Quinn “was not like a Blagojevich running out there to get his picture taken. His ideas are what he wanted out. I told them, ‘If you are in central or southern Illinois, let me know and I’ll do what I can.’”

Quinn said he liked having Milner around.

Speaker Mike Madigan and Gov. Rod Blagojevich were not close and often had very public disagreements. So, during the speeches to the Illinois delegation at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, former Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. challenged the two to hug and start over. This is the hug that got a lot of attention and a standing ovation from those in attendance. But I don’t think any other photographer was able to capture a photo, which later appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times. (Lee Milner)

“He has a divine gift – his ability to not just take photos but take evocative photos, pictures that really bring out the people at the event and how they look and feel,” Quinn said.

“Lee is very discreet,” Quinn said. “He’s not a loud person. He’s very modest and polite and courteous – all the things you teach your kids to be. He embodies that. We’re lucky that God sent him our way.”

When asked how he would like to be remembered, Milner paused for about 30 seconds, then said: “I certainly would like to be remembered as a good father with successful kids, a good husband, and I suppose a loyal worker, and mostly as a helper.”

 

Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer at Illinois Times. He can be reached at 217-679-7810, dolsen@illinoistimes.com or twitter.com/DeanOlsenIT.

 


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