Jim Dey: It's hard to downplay cachet of UI's Kummerow

Jim Dey: It's hard to downplay cachet of UI's Kummerow

It was a big local story last week when longtime University of Illinois Professor Fred Kummerow died at age 102.

Commensurate with his stature as a longtime scholar and researcher, local media outlets, particularly The News-Gazette, reported extensively on his death. That's as it should be.

Professor Kummerow was a big part of the UI and Champaign-Urbana community for decades, as was his wife, the late Amy Kummerow. She was active in local Democratic politics and served on the Champaign County Board.

But sometimes people take local celebrities for granted, perhaps even Professor Kummerow.

He was not just a big player on the local stage. Professor Kummerow was a big player on the national stage.

That's why both the New York Times and the Washington Post devoted substantial space to obituaries that discussed his life and work, particularly his long battle to ban trans fats from the American food supply.

In preparation for his death, the Times, as it routinely does in its most important obituaries, conducted a pre-death interview with Professor Kummerow in search of information to use post-death.

"Interviewed for this obituary in 2016, Professor Kummerow said that in the 1960s and 1970s the processed food industry, enjoying a cozy relationship with scientists, played a large role in keeping trans fats in people's diets.

"'Other scientists were more interested in what the industry was thinking than what I was thinking,' he said. He was often heckled by industry representatives at scientific conferences, he said."

The Times described Professor Kummerow as a "German-born biochemist and lifelong contrarian" and said he was "one of the first scientists to suggest a link between processed foods and heart disease."

The Post obituary naturally focused on Professor Kummerow's scientific research, but it also delved into more personal aspects that reflected his broad interests and concerns. That included his habit of writing letters on a variety of subjects — including the national debt, nuclear weapons and energy, to "five U.S. presidents, members of Congress and other people of distinction."

The point here is not to revisit the details of Professor Kummerow's exemplary life, but to remind local readers that the UI is a home to many wonderful professors, like Professor Kummerow, who are doing important work that has tremendous potential for making the world a better and more interesting place.

After witnessing the sometimes infantile and self-destructive political and academic antics that take place on a regular basis on the UI campus, or any college campus, people can lose track of the big picture. The life of Professor Kummerow, and the recognition it received in two of this country's most important publications reminds everyone what great people and great resources institutions like the UI represent.

Madigan's foil

Readers may recall previous stories in this space about Democratic state Rep. Scott Drury, the only member of House Speaker Michael Madigan's caucus who wouldn't back Madigan for another term running the House.

For that, Drury has been effectively banished from the club by Speaker Madigan. As persona non grata, Drury, among other things, lost a prestigious committee assignment.

This week, a Democrat in Drury's suburban Chicago district announced he'll challenge Drury for re-election in the March primary. That's generally how Madigan rids himself of independent-minded Democrats.

But Drury had an announcement of his own — he's entering the primary race for governor. Those who like Madigan, he said, should back one of his opponents, and those who don't should vote for him.

"I like those odds," Drury was quoted as saying.

If so, he's the only one. Speaker Madigan, who is also chairman of the state Democratic Party, has an iron grip on politics and policy in Illinois.

Still, Drury emphasized in his announcement that he remains opposed to Madigan-style government in Illinois, and that will be one of his campaign themes.

His media announcement emphasized that "Drury is widely recognized as the most independent Democrat in the Illinois General Assembly," and that in January he became "the first Democrat in three decades not to vote for" Madigan as House Speaker.

A former assistant U.S. attorney, Drury also disputed claims by some of his Democratic rivals, including state Sen. Daniel Biss and Chicago businessman Chris Kennedy, that they, too, have tired of Madigan.

"Imitation is the greatest form of flattery. I can assure you that when I took the bold step of not voting for Madigan, none of those candidates called to thank me or ask how they could help the effort to return Illinois government to the people," he said.

Schock case

Defense and prosecution lawyers in the upcoming corruption trial of former Peoria U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock continue to exchange voluminous legal arguments explaining why the case against the 35-year-old Republican should or should not be dismissed.

This week, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Bass submitted a 92-page response to a lengthy defense motion arguing that the 22-page indictment against Schock is both constitutionally and legally flawed.

U.S. Judge Colin Bruce, who is hearing the case at the Urbana federal court, has not indicated when he will rule on the dismissal issues. But the case, already delayed from this summer, is tentatively scheduled to go to trial in January.

In his response to defense arguments, Bass noted that "the charges in the indictment are grounded in repeated false statements and allege that defendant Schock corrupted his congressional office by engaging in a scheme to steal and unlawfully convert federal, campaign committee and other funds including funds from his own constituents."

Charges against Schock include wire fraud, making false statements and income tax evasion. Defense arguments for dismissal rely on complicated legal arguments involving the congressional speech and debate, rule-making and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

Prosecutor Bass argued that those protections do "not provide immunity to a member of Congress to lie or engage in a scheme to defraud" the public.

Bass said the mileage reimbursement fraud allegations will "require no interpretation of ambiguous House rules," that rules barring Schock from an "extravagant" redecoration of his House office were clear and that "repeatedly lying is not 'authorized under any reasonable interpretation of House rules.'"

Suffice it to say, prosecutors argued that Schock's misconduct is not complicated by constitutional questions and neither are the criminal charges on which they are based.

A onetime rising political star, Schock resigned from the U.S. House in March 2015 after a series of news reports linked to him to questionable use of taxpayer and campaign donor money. After being indicted in November 2016, Schock denounced the criminal investigation in which he was ensnared, forcefully declared his innocence and vowed to fight to clear his name.

In making his claims, Schock acknowledged mishandling financial issues in his office but denied any criminal intent.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or by phone at 217-351-5369.