Secretary of State Paul Powell, who served from 1965 to 1970, is popularly remembered as the center of one of Illinois’ greatest political scandals. But he was also among the most active State Librarians in the history of the State Library. His many friends and former employees speak fondly of his friendly approach, devotion to his job, and interest in people.

His death on Oct. 10, 1970, ended a long career of achievement for the popular Secretary. It also touched off one of the most controversial episodes in Illinois political history.

Powell was born on Jan. 21, 1902, in Vienna, a small town in far southern Illinois, in a house that he owned for his entire life. Educated in the Vienna public schools, Powell worked in his father’s pharmacy and later opened Powell’s Café, a small restaurant in Vienna where he worked with his first wife, Violet. She was one of 687 killed in the deadly “Tri-State” tornado that swept across Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana on March 18, 1925. He remarried in 1929 to Daisy Butler, a shorthand reporter in the Circuit Court. Daisy Powell died in 1967. 1

In 1930, Powell was elected mayor of Vienna. He also served six years on the Vienna high school board. He was elected to the Illinois House in 1934 and remained in the House for 30 years, including three terms as Speaker. Among his pet projects was legislation for mental health and education. Along the way, he became one of the most respected and popular voices in the General Assembly. The Illinois Legislative Correspondents Association twice honored Powell as “Outstanding Legislator of Illinois.” His gray hair and political prowess earned him the nickname “The Gray Fox of Vienna.” 2

Powell was elected Secretary of State in 1964 and sponsored many laws that improved safety on Illinois roads. Among them were reflectorized license plates, improved high school driver education, and a requirement that drivers be notified at least 30 days in advance of the expiration of their licenses. He also published the Bicycle Rules of the Road, a safety booklet for schoolchildren. Under his administration, Powell also permitted the sale of license plates in banks, saving much money and manpower for the Secretary’s office while improving consumer convenience. Automation was also a key issue in Powell’s tenure. Many of his departments, including the State Library, underwent a transformation to automated techniques during the time. 3

Powell was known for his folksy persona and humor. On political compromise, Powell declared, “my father told me when I was young, if you can’t get a dinner, take a sandwich.” During a Democratic victory dinner in November 1948, Powell said of the patronage system, “the people smelled the meat-a-cooking. Now it’s well done, and it will be sliced in January. I hope it will go to competent and deserving Democrats.” Ironically, as State Librarian, Powell discontinued the practice of hiring political appointees at the State Library. 4

Although Republicans won most Illinois offices in 1968, Powell was re-elected as Secretary of State despite increasing accusations of corruption. Charges of wrongdoing dated to a 1964 article by Lieutenant Governor Paul Simon, a fellow Democrat, who did not mention Powell by name but asserted that a former Speaker had made at least $10,000 annually from graft. In 1966, Powell’s chief investigator was convicted of defrauding the state. Powell was frequently criticized for holding stock in a state-regulated racetrack, a clear conflict of interest. 5

On Sept. 14, 1970, Powell entered the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, for treatment of a heart ailment. After a brief return to Springfield, he headed back to the clinic on October 8. He was found dead in his Rochester hotel suite two days later. 6

On October 13, personal associates discovered a shoebox containing $800,000 in cash in Powell’s room at the St. Nicholas Hotel in Springfield. The finding touched off a sweeping scandal that spanned several years and involved two federal court trials. The scandal revealed Powell’s engagement in numerous illegal activities, including embezzlement and accepting bribes and kickbacks. Powell netted hundreds of thousands of dollars in these transactions. 7

Finally, on Aug. 17, 1973, the state of Illinois announced a settlement in which $100,000 was to be paid to the state’s General Fund. The remaining sum of $1.6 million was to be divided between the Illinois State Historical Society, the Illinois State Museum and the Johnson County Historical Society in Vienna (whose museum was located in Powell’s childhood home). Although he was well known as a devoted champion of library causes in the state, the State Library, unlike its two old rivals, the State Museum and the State Historical Society, did not share in the settlement. 8

Many Illinoisans today remember Powell for the infamous shoebox. However, those who worked for him tell a different story, recalling the Secretary’s personal touch and ability to connect with his employees. 9

  1. Vienna Times March 26, 1925; State Journal-Register Oct. 12, 1970; Howlett 151.
  2. State Journal-Register Oct. 12, 1970; Howlett 151.
  3. Howlett 151-152.
  4. State Journal-Register Oct. 12, 1970; Howlett 156.
  5. State Journal-Register Oct. 12, 1970; Howlett 152-153.
  6. State Journal-Register Oct. 12, 1970; Howlett 149.
  7. Howlett 149, 153-155.
  8. Howlett 155.
  9. Many current and former State Library employees speak well of Powell’s ability to connect with staff, as well as his devotion to the needs of the State Library and libraries statewide. Howlett, 149, concedes that Powell is immeasurably connected with the shoebox episode.