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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008 12:56 am

Remembering Everett Dirksen

Pekin’s Dirksen Center celebrates a colorful character

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This offical portrait hangs in Pekin and in Washington, D.C.

The colorful and raspy-voiced U. S. Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen died in 1969, but his memory lives on at the Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin, near Peoria. This is a research center, but a museum, too. The first thing that catches one's eye is Sen. Everett Dirksen's desk from his Capitol office. Dirksen, called the "Wizard of Ooze" for his flowery oratory, served in Congress from 1932 to 1969, except for a four-year hiatus, and was U. S. senator from 1951 on. He served as Senate minority leader during his last decade in office.

Inside the stacks are unusual artifacts, among them a collection of large paintings of Dirksen, including the official portrait, a duplicate of which hangs in the Senate. Staff member Frank Mackaman points out one done by local artist Lester Chase, which pictures the senator in a marigold-colored suit. He never wore such a suit, but he was known for his love of marigolds, which he attempted to have designated the national flower. Next to Dirksen in the portrait is a bouquet of marigolds. The painting also shows an American flag and the Bible, from which Dirksen quoted often.

Dirksen's briefcase sits on a shelf. So does a collection of elephants from aide Harold Rainville, a 1967 Grammy Award, and a Gold Record with Dirksen's name misspelled.

The Dirksen Congressional Center opened five years ago, but most people doing research do not need to go there. All the center's papers are digitized on the Internet.

The center has papers for former Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen, former House Minority Leader Robert Michel, and former Congressman Harold Velde. It is in the process of acquiring the papers of Congressman Ray LaHood, who has decided not to seek another term. The center would like to have the papers of every member of Congress from the Pekin-area district since 1933, as well as the papers of whoever succeeds LaHood, says Mackaman. LaHood's papers are sealed until five years after he leaves office.

The center has not only Dirksen's papers, but also transcripts of his appearances on the Sunday morning talk shows, digitized cartoons about him, his legislative record, his newsletters that he wrote and typed himself and audios of the Ev and Charlie Show, a program on which Dirksen discussed public affairs with House Minority Leader Charles Halleck.

There are smaller connections, too, like oral histories, newspaper clips, correspondence, photos and TV tapes.

Probably the single most frequent request has to do with the quote, "A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money." The quote is widely attributed to Dirksen, but Mackaman says he is still trying to verify that he said it.

The Dirksen Congressional Center Internet site is an umbrella site, with links to other sites, Mackaman explains. The links include those to teachers' lesson plans, online versions of workshops, historical materials, and Congress for Kids. The umbrella site has had more than 80 million hits this year. The goal is to educate people not just about members of Congress, but about Congress itself.

Hits come from people all over the world, like teachers in Italy and Japan. Schoolchildren send feedback. One said that once he found the site, he got an "A."

From feedback, Mackaman knows there is a researcher working on Dirksen's stance on issues related to the judiciary. The site attracts a lot of researchers interested in the leadership aspects of Dirksen and Michel – their political dynamics. There are people interested in his recording career. Most of the researchers are academic scholars, whose writing will result in an article in a professional journal or in a book.

The most popular section is the one documenting Dirksen's efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It includes other historic materials as well as teachers' lesson plans on how Congress makes decisions.

Mackaman and other staff are attempting to track down Dirksen's case files, where the senator went to bat for his constituents. One such case was an immigrant trying to bring his wife here. Dirksen served on the Pekin City Council before going to Congress, and the center has submitted a request for his records there.

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