Illinois’ most-coveted license plate, No. 1, could be available again
Updated: October 29, 2012 11:56AM
It once belonged to a succession of Roman Catholic cardinals in Chicago. Then, it went to an Illinois secretary of state who would later be remembered for the shoeboxes stuffed with cash that he left behind after his death. Most recently, it adorned the car of a former Illinois first lady.
But for the past decade, Illinois’ No. 1 license plate — the most coveted of all the state’s nearly 7.8 million passenger-vehicle license plates — has quietly been kept out of circulation.
That has been the case ever since the widow of former Gov. Richard Ogilvie relinquished the showpiece plate in 2002.
It happened without any fanfare. There was no public notice by Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White.
Since then, few outside White’s domain knew the plate was out of circulation and, in theory, available — not even Gov. Pat Quinn.
But told that that’s the case by a Chicago Sun-Times reporter, Quinn now has a plan to put passenger plate No. 1 back into circulation.
He wants the plate sold to the highest bidder, with the proceeds going to programs for military veterans.
The governor has long been a proponent of auctioning off coveted low-digit and single-letter license plates, which for decades have gone to those with political clout — including more than a few who ended up being felons.
Four other states now allow license plates to be auctioned to the high bidder.
No one can say for certain how much Illinois’ No. 1 might draw. In 2009, though, Delaware plate No. 11 pulled in a whopping $675,000 at auction. And that was No. 11, not No. 1.
“Considering our state is so much larger than Delaware, this is something worth considering,” Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said.
“The governor thinks this particular license plate could possibly be a new source of revenue for the veterans’ assistance programs,” Anderson said. “It could help homeless veterans. It could help treat veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome. It could help veterans without health insurance. We could look at creating a program that helps veterans get jobs.
“Of course, we’d need the support of Secretary White,” she said. “But this particular license plate is so high-profile and has such potential to net revenue, it’s something to be looked at.”
It seems that White would need to be sold on the idea.
“I think we’d want to look at it more before we could offer some insights into it,” Dave Druker, a spokesman for the Chicago Democrat, said of Quinn’s plan.
Not that White has any other plans for the prized plate, according to Druker: “There is no great strategy or plan at this point.”
When Quinn was lieutenant governor under the now-imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, he backed a plan to take control of more than 25,000 exclusive Illinois plates and auction them off. Estimates were that might bring in as much as $25 million. That plan never went anywhere.
Leslie Hindman, president and CEO of Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, said plate No. 1 would be sure to draw great interest.
“I don’t know where they’d want to start the bidding, but I think a lot of people would participate if the money was being given to a very worthy cause,” she said.
Plate No. 1 was issued in 1907. It went to Sidney Gorham, a Chicago lawyer for the Chicago Automobile Club who wrote the state vehicle code. His yearly renewal of No. 1 attracted coverage from Chicago newspapers until his death in 1936.
After that, for two years in the late 1930s and then again starting in 1942, the plate was in the hands of the Archdiocese of Chicago.
That lasted until 1970, when then-Cardinal John Cody gave it up, saying he regarded it as too showy for a person who had taken a vow of poverty.
Cody later came under federal investigation — but was never charged — over allegations he diverted as much as $1 million in church funds to enrich a female friend.
After Cody gave up the license plate, then-Secretary of State Paul Powell claimed it for himself, ostensibly to avoid controversy over who should get it.
Powell died in 1970, and more than $800,000 in cash — much of it stuffed in shoeboxes — was found in his Springfield hotel suite. It was a stunning discovery, given that Powell had never made more than $30,000 a year during a 42-year career in politics.
After Powell’s death, his successor as secretary of state, John Lewis, an appointee of Republican Gov. Ogilvie, gave the plate to Ogilvie’s wife, Dorothy.
She held onto it for three decades. She joked that she got it by “sleeping with the governor.”
Dorothy Ogilvie — who lives on Chicago’s Gold Coast and recently celebrated her 90th birthday — gave up the plate when she quit driving and sold her car, said her daughter, Elizabeth Simer.
“She enjoyed owning it,” Simer said.
But she noted that Illinois has added all sorts of specialty license plates to honor and benefit a host of causes, so there are many No. 1 plates these days — and she said her mom “got the parking tickets for every single one of them.”
Back when Illinois would change license plates every year, and the state would send her mother the latest version of No. 1, Mrs. Ogilvie would be approached by license-plate collectors eager to get the old one.
“There’s a lot of interest in them,” she said.
Simer, who is the only child of the late governor and his wife, could have arranged to have the No. 1 plate passed down to her but didn’t.
“I wouldn’t have wanted all the attention,” she said. “And all those parking tickets.”