Upon his retirement from politics in 2006, George P. Shadid was hailed by fellow lawmakers and the community he served, who knew him as quietly productive—an authentic, principled man who got things done. “His word is his bond,” wrote one political commentator, “making him one of the most dependably honest legislators at the Statehouse.” The first Lebanese-American elected to the Illinois State Senate, Shadid prided himself on common-sense, practical solutions in the best interest of his constituents.
One of nine children born to Lebanese immigrants, Shadid moved to Peoria with his family when he was 11 years old. As a teenager, he played sports and worked with future Peoria Mayor Jim Maloof at Maloof Cleaners, and soon, he met the love of his life, Lorraine Unes, whom he married on May 30, 1953. That November, he joined the Peoria Police Department, where he rose up the ranks for 23 years before winning the first of five elections for Peoria County sheriff—the first Democrat in a century to hold the office. With a Republican on board as his campaign manager, Shadid’s first political race set the bar for the bipartisanship that became his hallmark.
Serving as sheriff until 1993, Shadid was appointed to fill a vacancy in the 46th Senate District—selected unanimously by party leaders. With the street smarts of a former cop and a lifelong affinity for the working class, he was re-elected four times and never faced a tough re-election campaign. In 2006, he decided to retire from politics, leaving office at the age of 77 after the death of his youngest son, George Shadid Jr., who passed away after a battle with brain cancer. Meanwhile, his eldest son, James Shadid, was nominated to the federal judiciary by President Obama in 2010, and now serves as chief judge for the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois.
iBi met with George and Lorraine Shadid at the couple’s home in Edwards, Illinois, where they reflected on the ins and outs of family, community and a life in public service.
Tell us about your childhood and early years.
I was born on May 15, 1929 in a little town on the Mississippi River called Clinton, Iowa, about 40 miles from Davenport. I was one of nine children; I was about the middle of the group. At that time, there wasn’t a lot of money—a lot of people had a hard time even getting enough food to eat. It was hard to make a living.
My dad had a dress shop in Clinton. It didn’t make much money, but we survived. When the Depression hit in the early thirties… my dad took it upon himself to start peddling lingerie… to make enough money to feed us. He worked hard. He would leave the house to go to Davenport, Moline, Rock Island, Peoria… and then come back home about a week later.
My mother was one of the greatest women I ever knew. I just worshipped her. She had nine children and her job—her chores—were to go down to the basement, do the laundry, come back up, get the meals and take care of us kids… And she’d do the cooking and canning. I thought to myself, my God, how could she do all of these things? That’s just the way she was.
Were your parents born in Lebanon?
Yes. They were born in a village called Marjayoun. It’s a small village in southeastern Lebanon, south of Beirut. In that village, it was predominantly people named “Shadid.” Sha-DEED, they called them. I went to see the village… and it was as beautiful as they said it was.
What brought your parents to Iowa?
I never did know exactly, except [my father’s] brother Charly moved there first. And that’s like all the immigrants—when one of the family goes somewhere, that’s where they all go.
We had some cousins named Haddad, which is a very popular name in Lebanon… We lived in the valley on the river, and they lived right up the hill behind us. We always visited each other. They had a great apple tree in their backyard and I would wait for those apples to get big, but I ate ‘em green. In the thirties, you’d eat anything! (laughs)
Money was really tough, but the families all stuck together. My aunt’s dad, Sam Haddad, was a great guy who worked construction. One day out of the month, he would take a little group of us… to the Strand Theatre in Clinton, and they always had the cowboy [movies] on Saturday. And we loved him, we just loved him. Then I started playing baseball when I was seven, eight, nine years old. I’d leave home and go from Camanche Avenue, walk about three miles up to Chancy Park. My mother would pack me a lunch and I’d come back at 5:00 in the afternoon (laughs). I just had a great [time] growing up.
How old were you when your family moved to Peoria?
Eleven or 12 years old.
Did your family connect with the Lebanese community here?
A little bit—that’s mostly who we connected with. I got to know a lot of the kids, and I ended up playing softball every day.
How did you meet Lorraine?
George: I was tending bar up at my brother’s tavern in South Rome, and in comes this gal…
Lorraine: I met him and he didn’t give me a second look… It was a leap year, and on leap year, the girl can ask the guy to be married. So I…
George: She burned up the telephone lines to my house (laughs). She kept calling the house and my mother said, “Who is this young girl?” [I said], “Oh mom, I don’t know, I just met her, and she seemed like a nice gal.” “Where is she from?” I said she’s from Aitou. And she came over, and my mother fell in love with her.
Lorraine: We were married six months after we met. I proposed to him.
What was your first job?
I quit school early—I never went to high school because in those days, we were short on money… Anyway, I got me a job. My first job was at Maloof Cleaners. They used to wash rugs there all the time and I would help Mr. Maloof, the old man, because the other boys were in the service—Jim and Mitch. Old man Maloof, his name was Nimer. Tough old bird, tougher than nails.
What did you do for him?
He ran the rug department while the boys were in the service. He took a liking to me. He’d always want me to hold the rug on this rail while they were fixing the end of it with a machine. Surging, they called it. My job was to guide the rail so it wouldn’t run off with the thing. I’d watch him, and I’m pulling, and he’d always tell me, “Now keep this machine straight,” so I’d do it straight. I called him Tiger—that was his nickname, that’s what they all called him. When he went to take his nap, he’d get up and be grouchy and everyone would get out of his way (laughs). So I’m holding this rug and every now and then, I’d jerk it, and he’d look up at me. He’d have to pull [it] back and rerun it. “Hold it steady!” I was scared to death of him, but I always wanted to tease him (laughs). So that was my first job. I was getting 25 cents an hour or something like that.
How long did you work there?
I worked there a few years. I ended up being a truck driver, delivering cleaning. Then I went to work for Bahn Cleaners on the south side. I worked there for a year or two, then went to work for New National Cleaners. They had an office downtown on Jefferson Street, right around the corner from the courthouse.
Then I met a guy named Harley Boswell, who was a city councilman. I was about 20 or 21 years old. He used to bring his cleaning in there. He took a liking to me… and we’d go across the street to the pool hall and have a beer or two. In those days, in the city council, it was patronage. A councilman could pick you out and say, “Hey, you want a job?” I said yeah. He said, “You ought to be a policeman, you’d be a good cop.” So anyway, I got on the Police Department.
Tell us about your early days on the force.
I didn’t have a high school education, but I had street smarts. And I knew just about every hoodlum in town, which didn’t hurt me when I was a cop… I was a rookie and they put me everywhere, where nobody else wanted to work. South side of Peoria, Warner Homes and Harrison Homes—the toughest districts in town. They were a mixture of blacks, whites, Mexicans, everything. It was sort of the poor area of Peoria, the valley. I worked nights, six days a week.
After I was on the force a while, I got to know John Timmes, and he and I became very tight. They made us partners. At that time, some of the cops didn’t like Timmes because he was black… There were a lot of problems in the black community at that time. I went on at a good time because my relationship with those communities was excellent. So when they put Timmes and I together, some of the thinking was, well, we’d kill each other (laughs). But, we didn’t. We made more arrests than anybody because we knew the people. We knew the good people from the bad people, and that’s what being a policeman is. You better know who the people are and how to deal with people.
John Timmes knew… the black community. In the sixties, that was important, because some cops couldn’t go down into those districts without having their guns ready. It was touch and go for a long time. But Timmes and I were partners for many years... My time with John Timmes was just unbelievable.
There were a lot of protests and demonstrations in the sixties. Were you involved with any of those?
We usually got the call to go on the scene because they knew we had a good relationship with that community, which was important. We never had any problems. If we did, it was very minimal. [Timmes] was the best partner I ever had, and we’re still very good friends.
I spent about 23 years on the police department and got to know a lot of people. One of my main friends was Mike Mihm, the state’s attorney. He talked me into running for sheriff… Mike was a classy guy, great state’s attorney.
This was in the early ‘70s?
George: About ’75. We worked together when he was state’s attorney and I was a policeman. He knew my partner was John Timmes, and he knew I got along with the black community and we had a good relationship. He was a Republican and all my friends were Democrats, but he didn’t care about that. I said I never graduated from high school—he said that didn’t make any difference; you’d be a good sheriff. Long story short, I came home and talked to [Lorraine] and decided to make the run.
Lorraine: He was the first Democrat sheriff in 100 years.
Was that a very partisan position at the time?
George: Oh yeah. There hadn’t been a Democrat elected for 100 years, if ever… So Mike Mihm got on my bandwagon… and I got elected hands down—that was my first run for public office.
Were you always a Democrat?
My family was. I grew up in a poor family… and most of the poor people were Democrats. I was fortunate enough to have Republicans and Democrats because I had a pretty good record as a policeman and as sheriff to treat people decently.
How was being sheriff different from working on the city force?
The sheriff’s department had been very, very political for years. If you were a Democrat, you never thought of running for sheriff. So when I ran, I made it a very clear point to be sure I got some Democrats and Republicans on my committee. I got a lot of retired cops—policemen I worked with—who were ready to retire from the police department. I would hire them in key positions in the sheriff’s office, Democrats and Republicans. And that’s how we became pretty popular. So I had a committee of about 15 people. I split it evenly [between parties], and we never lost an election. And that’s how I changed the complete face of the sheriff’s office instead of being so heavily on one side.
At that time, if a [city] policeman was making $10,000 a year, a sheriff deputy was making $5,000 for basically the same job. My goal was to raise their salaries up to the same level, and I was able to do that.
I’ve been very fortunate. I was in the right place at the right time, and had the wherewithal and the ability to put together a force that people could respect, knowing they’d be even with everybody. And the sheriff’s department has made a lot of great strides, with a lot of good sheriffs… I was in the right place at the right time. And that’s what everything is in life—is timing and how you approach it.
In 1993, you were appointed to the Illinois Senate. Was that a big change for you?
I enjoyed it. I got to know a lot of people and made a lot of good friends. I wasn’t beholden to one party [or] owned by any individual, so it was very easy for me to do things I wanted to do and get them done. I could very easily talk to the other side of the aisle. That’s the secret to politics. It shouldn’t be a secret, but some people have a hard time talking to the other side of the aisle… Anyway, I was fortunate; my timing always seemed to be pretty good. And I had a lot of friends out in the community.
What were some of the key issues that were important to you when you were a senator?
At one time, there were a lot of issues because it was so political. School consolidation—we finally got that done to the degree that we wanted to. Some highlights of my six years… being able to work with somebody like [Barack] Obama.
Do you remember when he first came into the Illinois Senate? What was he like?
He was a friendly guy. I’d tease him every now and then (laughs). He and I just kicked off real easy together. I respected him. Very smart guy, very intelligent. His wife was extremely intelligent… very nice lady. But, Barack Obama, I had a good time with him. We’re still good friends.
Did you have a feeling at the time that he would get to where he has gotten?
No I didn’t… but he was easy to be with. He was very quiet, he’s still pretty quiet. He’s very smart.
Did you see eye to eye with him on working with the other party?
Absolutely. That’s what made him successful, and me too… Some of the problems we have today, and have had for years, are [because of] party politics.
What made you decide to retire in 2005?
Lorraine: Our son Georgie passed away and nothing else mattered.
George: We were driving home, and I said I think I’m going to retire… I wasn’t feeling so good because of my son George (pauses)… Georgie and Jim, I was very proud of both of them. And they were complete opposites… Jimmy was a year older than Georgie and a couple inches taller. Georgie was the toughest of the both—he would fight at the drop of a hat. Jim is mild. But they were really tight, tighter than a drum. I’d be downtown and I’d see them walking around together. And I was very proud.
Did you go to Washington, DC when Jim was named a federal judge?
President Obama invited us to the Oval Office. He’s very close to our family.
Tell me about your involvement with Easter Seals.
That’s one I’ve been very active in. I like Easter Seals; I like the way they operate. I like what they do. I like all charities, but Easter Seals is my favorite.
Easter Seals named its autism center in your name [The Lorraine & George Shadid Autism Resource Center]. Were you attracted to that cause specifically?
George: Yeah, I knew some autistic kids. It’s really a bad thing to have. That’s one of the things we sponsored for the big fundraiser [the Easter Seals Tribute Dinner held in their honor in 2006].
Lorraine: After that, you gave your campaign money away to Bradley for scholarships.
George: I put it all in a scholarship program [George P. Shadid Jr. Scholarship fund]… Every now and then, I’ll try to donate money even though I’m retired, to keep the scholarship going.
Your son Jim went to Bradley, right?
George: Yeah, he’s now on the Bradley Board of Trustees. We’re very proud of him. I always say to myself, I’ve been blessed. I’m not the smartest guy in the country, and was sort of wild when I was growing up, but I was fortunate enough to have the right people grab ahold of me and say, “Get with it. Wake up!” I’m not proud of the fact that I didn’t graduate from high school, but at the time…
Lorraine: It was war time, and you stayed to help your family.
George: My brothers were all in the service and my dad was getting old. I started work when I was about 15, and I always took my paycheck home.
Anything else you’d like to add?
George: I’m very fortunate. Lorraine and I have been married 62 years and look at her—she still looks pretty good (laughs). We’re happy with each other. We understand each other, and I respect her and she respects me. And we enjoy each other.
When I was growing up, my dad always said, “Never shame the family name.” I was one of nine kids, and I was fortunate enough to have a great mother and dad and family. And I’ve got a lot of great friends. Family and friends are what’s important. I’ve been fortunate. If everybody was as fortunate as me, then the world would be great. I don’t deserve it all, but…
Lorraine: You’ve earned it. iBi