Saturday, Jun 23, 2018
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Gilligan remembered for his dry wit and caring

Service honors former Ohio governor

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    The crowd leaves the church after the memorial service Wednesday for former Ohio Gov. John ‘Jack’ Gilligan at St. Francis de Sales Church in Cincinnati.

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CINCINNATI — In a quiet memorial service, Ohio said good-bye Wednesday to John Joyce “Jack” Gilligan — the man, father, and Notre Dame fan with a biting sense of humor.

Today at the Statehouse, it will say good-bye to Governor Gilligan, the liberal Irish Catholic Democrat, father of the state income tax, and founder of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

“Jack Gilligan. There will not soon if ever be another like him,” said his son, John Patrick Gilligan, at St. Francis de Sales Church, where his father was baptized 92 years earlier and near the family funeral home. The former governor died on Aug. 26.

PHOTO GALLERY: Funeral service for former Ohio Gov. John Gilligan

Later, daughter Kathleen Sebelius, a former Kansas governor and currently President Obama’s secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, said she’d learned her lessons well at her father’s table.

“It was his incredible moral compass, which always guided what he did,” she told The Blade at a reception held at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

“He believed that you don’t just do what’s popular, you need to make sure that you’re looking out for people who don’t have a voice, who are not at the table,” she said. “And that sometimes means ruffling some feathers. I learned those lessons well. I learned it isn’t about winning or losing an election. It’s about what you want to do when you get there.”

The service and reception emphasized the person rather than the politician. There were no other former or current governors at either event, and just a few state lawmakers, including Rep. Chris Redfern (D., Catawba Island) who doubles as state Democratic chairman.

More than a few recalled Mr. Gilligan’s dry wit and biting sense of humor, which sometimes got him into trouble in the political arena. Long after leaving the governor’s mansion, he stepped in to run for Cincinnati School Board during turbulent times.

He quipped that he was going to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

The Rev. Len Wenke noted, “If you ever had a conversation with him about the texts, if there was a twinkle in his eye, watch out.”

He loved his “politics, football, and whiskey,” as granddaughter Hannah Gilligan Commoss recalled.

“He believed that, to whom much was given, much was asked, and that, working together, we could do things that we could not do as individuals,” son John said before the memorial service began. “I think he also believed in extraordinary faith and that people you could talk to intelligently could understand what the issues are and would do the right thing.”

Mr. Gilligan was not physically present at the church, and he will not lie in state at the Statehouse. His body was donated to science at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

The governor has been championed for fighting for the downtrodden, so it is perhaps fitting that on Thursday, while his Columbus memorial is held inside the Statehouse, a long-planned rally will take place outside calling for expansion of Medicaid eligibility under President Obama’s health-care law.

If he were alive, “he’d be on the steps with them and his daughter would probably be there, too,” said Bob Daley, assistant to Mr. Gilligan while he was governor. That daughter is Ms. Sebelius, who is in charge of implementing the federal health-care law.

Mr. Gilligan won the gubernatorial campaign in 1970 on a platform that promised to create the first Ohio income tax. He ushered the tax through a Republican-controlled General Assembly that was more than happy to let him take the blame in 1974 when he lost his bid for re-election to returning Republican Gov. James Rhodes.

State Rep. Connie Pillich (D., Cincinnati) noted at the reception that Mr. Gilligan made the case for the tax by demonstrating the impact it would have in serving the mentally ill, disabled, and poor.

“And then the people had a referendum, and he did the barnstorming tour, and the people did decide it was important to take care of these populations,” she said. “... I think it’s very interesting now that the Republicans decide that, instead of a progressive tax like the income tax, which is based largely on your ability to pay, we’re going to move toward a very regressive [sales] tax that unduly penalizes the elderly and the poor.”

Mr. Gilligan served on Cincinnati City Council from 1953 to 1963 and in Congress from 1965 to 1967 when Medicare was enacted. In 1968, he upset sitting U.S. Sen. Frank Lausche in the Democratic primary election before going on to lose to Republican William B. Saxbe in the general vote.

He rode a GOP “pay-to-play” loan scandal into the governor’s mansion for his single term, defeating Republican Auditor Roger Cloud. After leaving office in early 1975, he served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development and as a faculty member and director of the Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, his alma mater.

Contact Jim Provance at: or 614-221-0496.

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