Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, behind bars for almost six weeks now, is washing pots and pans six days a week at the Englewood Federal Correctional Center in Colorado, according to Fox News’s Larry Yellin, who interviewed Blago’s former lawyers at the prison gate Sunday. After 90 days of dishwashing detail, Yellin reports, Blago will be “teaching either Shakespeare or ancient Greek philosophy and mythology.”
For me, the image of the former gov washing pots and pans triggered some memories: In 2003, when I was writing a profile of him, Blago reminisced to me about skipping his 1975 high school graduation to head to Alaska where his father, Rade, was already working on the pipeline. Blago’s father had heard through his “Serbian pipeline” about the “unbelievable” wages to be had. Rod eventually got a job in Fairbanks working the night-shift cleaning the Bechtel office (the engineering company working on the pipeline), located in a trailer, and then another job washing pots and pans ten hours a day, seven days a week. He remembered the life as “lonely” and likened the accommodations—he lived in a trailer—to a “minimum security prison.” That was a tougher schedule than real prison, except he was making much more back then—just under $11 an hour, time and half over 40 hours (and he worked 70) and double time on Sundays—than the pennies an hour he’s earning now.
“I was the only guy in camp who had to work fast,” Blago told me in 2003. “The tradesmen had an interest in working at a slow pace because they could keep their jobs longer…. But everybody was hungry and those cooks needed those pots and pans and the pressure was on me everyday to get those things clean for four meals…. Sunday night was the worst because it was prime rib night and getting those prime rib pots clean was hard.”
In 2003, just after he became governor with visions of the White House dancing in his head, Blago kept coming back to his experience in Alaska and the life lessons he learned, especially by watching how his noble immigrant father sacrificed for his sons.
Already in his 60s, close to retirement age, Rade had gone to Alaska to bank money to send sons Rob and Rod to college, and Rod to law school. Rade stayed there for four years, from age 63 to 67, working 80-hour weeks, and, as Blago told the Sun-Times in a tribute on Father’s Day, 2003, Rade was “basically… a janitor,” doing work less skilled than his former job at Chicago’s Finkl Steel, where he manned a blazing furnace.
Blago told me with pride that his father in Alaska passed up the chance to make a quick $10,000 when he refused the request of a fellow Serb to burn down a restaurant for the insurance money. The gov also told me a story that one would think that his father would have been embarrassed to tell, given that it ends with Rod laughing over a lie he told—and worse, letting a fellow night shift worker, Bill Smith, a security guard with whom he had become friendly, take the blame: “So I’m cleaning the offices, and it was so dusty in there that I felt like I got to air this out, so I open up the two doors to air it out and I figure I’m coming back and I’ll finish this, and I’m going to do my chores in the kitchen. I’m walking back about four in the morning and I see this guy….. And [he] says to me, `Have you seen Bill Smith?’ I said, `No, why?’ `Because some fucking idiot left the doors open at the Bechtel offices and there are two bears in there.’ I walked in. The two bears are just wreaking havoc in the office…. The security guard is throwing pebbles to get them to go out the other door, and he says to me, `You didn’t leave these doors open did you?’ I said, `No, not me.’”
Photograph: Chicago Tribune