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Wednesday, March 25, 2009 04:47 pm

Born leader

Quinn appoints 29-year-old to direct Illinois State Police

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Jonathon Monken's company at West Point was known as the "cowboys." Monken (circled) is now director of the Illinois State Police.

Ask Jonathon Monken how he got the job as director of Illinois State Police — at the tender age of 29, with no law enforcement experience — and he’ll start with a story about being introduced to now-Gov. Pat Quinn at an awards ceremony a few years ago.

“The first time we met was when he presented me with a Hometown Heroes award,” Monken says.

And indeed, Quinn did deliver a speech at the Hometown Heroes breakfast sponsored by the Fox Valley Chapter of the American Red Cross at Eagle Brook Country Club in Geneva, Ill., on March 11, 2005.

Monken, who had raised about $18,000 in donations to repair schools in Kosovo, and another $5,000 to buy exercise equipment for his fellow soldiers in Baqubah, Iraq, couldn’t collect his honor in person, however, because he was stationed in Germany at the time. He appeared at the breakfast banquet via video.

“We were able to correspond by telephone,” Monken says. “That was my first introduction to the then-lieutenant governor.”

They reconnected sometime after Monken returned to Illinois and his buddy Dan Grant joined Quinn’s staff. Grant, who was Monken’s classmate at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point), was hired as a senior policy advisor to Quinn in November 2007 and elevated to director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs last month.

Monken’s account of how he copped the top cop spot sounds just as serendipitous as his initial virtual meeting with Quinn. “I was actually, at the time the job became available, when the previous director resigned, I was actually in the office of [Quinn’s] chief of operations,” he says, referring to the governor’s longtime aide, Simone McNeil. “I was actually there talking to her about some of the opportunities in Gov. Quinn’s office.”

He was interested in something like deputy chief of staff for military relations, or a senior advisor post like the one his buddy Grant had just vacated. He says he had no idea that then-ISP director Larry Trent was about to resign.

“To be honest, I don’t have specific information as to when the governor received that information. It just happened that I was in communication with Simone at the time,” Monken says.

Wow. Talk about being in the perfect place at the perfect time. The troops he’s now commanding aren’t buying it.

“We’re all mortified. This is a slap in the face,” one near-retirement-age officer told me. “Being a good soldier doesn’t mean that you’re a good cop. Knowledge would be nice too, especially when a cop-type thing comes up.”

“Who is this guy and where did he come from? No one knows. Everybody’s befuddled. I think everybody’s shocked,” another high-ranking officer told me.

He came from the Kane County town of St. Charles, a village west of Chicago with a population just under 30,000. U.S. Census data show a town that’s overwhelmingly white (94 percent), highly educated (43 percent of adults in St. Charles have a bachelor’s degree or higher), and affluent (the median household income among middle-aged householders is over $95,000).

His father, Jon Monken, is facilities director of the Norris Recreation Center and is currently a candidate for alderman; his mother, Jeanne, teaches seventh-grade language arts. Monken, who has an older sister named Virginia, played football at St. Charles High School and made good grades. At West Point, he did more of the same, graduating in the top 1 percent of his class, and lettering with the Black Knights, part of the NCAA’s “Sprint football” league with a maximum weight limit of 165 pounds per player.

(Monken admits he would no longer qualify, now carrying 195 to 200 pounds on his 5-foot-8 frame. “I ran a lot more then, and I lift a lot more weights now,” he says. “I’d like to think that a significant portion of the difference is muscle now, but yes, my wife is a fantastic cook, if this is going on the record.”)

After graduating from West Point, Monken was deployed on a NATO peacekeeping mission to Kosovo, commanding a platoon of 20 soldiers and serving as military liaison to seven municipalities. In March 2004, he began a one-year tour of duty in Iraq, where he helped train Iraqi security forces. “At one point, I was responsible for the logistical support and training of over 1,000 Iraqi security forces personnel,” he says.

It’s these positions he points to when I ask him about law enforcement background. “It’s basically limited to the experience I had in the military,” he says. Heck, he’s never even been on the bad end of law enforcement experience; the only traffic ticket he has ever received was in Germany, where a speed-trap camera snapped him doing 45 kilometers per hour in a 35 kph zone — or approximately 32 miles per hour in a 25 mph zone. “Yeah, I know,” he chuckles, “living it up, right? Oh yeah!”

The fact that he is now top dog over some 4,000 employees — many of whom were on the job back when he was still in diapers — doesn’t spook Monken.

“It’s not the first time I’ve served in that capacity, as the leader for somebody that’s much older than I am,” he says. “The principles remain the same; leadership is leadership, regardless of who it is that you’re leading. You’ve got to make sure that you carry yourself with integrity, you dedicate yourself to the job, and you lead by example.”

He has made one wise choice: He’s not going to wear an ISP uniform. “I think it’s something that the troopers put a lot of time and effort into earning, and until I think I’ve earned it, I don’t think that’s necessary,” he says. “No matter what, I just want to represent the agency appropriately.”

This decision has two benefits: It will marginally deflate the roiling resentment among the rank and file — each of whom could undoubtedly name at least five people more deserving of directorship than any 29-year-old kid — and it will allow Monken to find a wardrobe that will coordinate with his rose-colored glasses.

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