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Wednesday, April 22, 2009 10:17 am

Roland Burris returns to his roots

The junior senator returns to Centralia and reminisces about growing up in southern Illinois


After about an hour of drinking, making small talk about local political races, and prognosticating on the outcome of the following day’s election, the crowd in the banquet room of the Centralia House Restaurant abruptly bursts into applause when tonight’s guest of honor, Roland Burris, arrives just past 6 o’clock.

Burris, sporting a dark blue suit with a red handkerchief placed in the pocket compliments a red-and-navy diagonal-striped silk tie, glides through the cramped room trading hugs with relatives, friends and other well-wishers expressing how wonderful they think it is that the local boy who made good finally made it back home.

It’s his first trip to his hometown since Rod Blagojevich thumbed his nose at critics and appointed Burris to the Senate seat left vacant when then President-elect Barack Obama resigned in November.

Burris himself thumbed his nose at those insisting that he not accept the appointment, at U.S. Senate Democrats who initially refused to seat him, and at those demanding that he resign once it was revealed that Burris failed to disclose to an Illinois legislative committee that Blagojevich had asked Burris to raise money before making the appointment.

Reporters press Burris on his future plans and the indictment of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich after the senator is given the key to Centralia.

None of that matters here, not tonight. If Burris is a legend in his own mind, Centralia is to blame. To these people, and maybe only to these people, the former Illinois state comptroller and attorney general is a hero.

“I’m so proud of Centralia,” he says. “I tell people about this town. I don’t think there’s any other town like it in the country.” Centralia, he likes to say, is 110 miles south of Springfield, 110 miles north of Cairo, 65 miles east of St. Louis, and 63 miles from the Indiana border and, “that’s why we named ourselves Centralia — we’re the heart of southern Illinois.”

Despite having lived in Chicago for the past five decades, the 71-year-old doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to remembering details about Centralia. For example, he shouts out names of former high school classmates and distant cousins, recalling with ease not just their names but also nicknames and who dated, eventually married, divorced and remarried whom.

“I’m home and I’m at a loss at what the heck to say,” Burris said when he took the podium. “I won’t even read this prepared speech because I’m afraid I’ll say something out of line. Because I get home with you all and I just start talking and I get too comfortable. And because there’s press here, I want to make sure that I don’t say anything out of line because it would be all over the newspapers in terms of ‘Burris did it again.’”

Actually, Burris avoided controversial headlines throughout most of his 30-year career in Illinois politics.

Burris was born in 1937, the youngest of three children. Centralia (current population: 14,136) was a boomtown in those days, thanks to the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad and coal and oil industries, and where African-Americans made up 10 percent of the town’s growing population.

A decade after his birth, on March 25, 1947, 111 miners died when a coal dust explosion at a Centralia mine collapsed underground tunnels just minutes before shift change. Not long after the disaster, the town’s mining industry tanked, and many believe, so did Centralia.

The disappearance of jobs didn’t help to improve the palpable tension between blacks and whites either. In 1953, when Roland was 15 years old, his father, Earl, successfully led a campaign to desegregate the municipal swimming pool. On Memorial Day of that year, Roland was the first African-American to take a dip.

Burris just before addressing a crowd at Mascoutah High School, near Centralia.

Delores Wanzo, who’s held several elected offices in Centralia, says she thought something was special about young Burris even then. “He used to be my paper boy and when I owed him a dollar, he stayed there until he got it,” Wanzo recalls.

In fact, according to people who’ve known him his entire life, at age 16 Burris made up his mind that he wanted to become an attorney and run for statewide office. And though the town was divided racially, Burris tells how his alma mater, Centralia High School and its sports teams, nicknamed the Orphans, brought the community together.

“We had a heck of a football team. We lost two games in four years, both to East St. Louis,” says Burris, who, at five-feet-five-inches and 150 pounds, played safety. After graduating in the class of 1955, “the baddest class ever come outta cen-TRELL-ya,” he enjoys telling people, he went on to attend Southern Illinois University at Carbondale on a $35-per-quarter scholarship and receive a law degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

Burris’ story isn’t over quite yet. John Schmidt, the Sangamon County state’s attorney, is investigating whether Burris committed perjury when he testified to the Illinois House impeachment panel about his contact with Blagojevich’s office prior to Burris’ appointment.

On his three-day swing through southern Illinois, Burris declined to talk much about the investigation or the former governor’s 19-count indictment on April 2, except to say that Blagojevich has to handle his own problems, that he hasn’t been contacted by Schmidt’s office but that he’s “ready to cooperate with them in any way, form, or fashion,” and, of course, that he “is the junior senator from Illinois.”

No matter how much he tries to play it down, it’s clear that his legal troubles have weighed heavily on him. Around the time he was named to the Senate, Centralia’s mayor, Becky Ault, called to invite him home, he says. “Then shortly after that, a few changes were made, and things happened, and I wondered whether I’d still be welcome when I got home,” Burris says.

Burris participates in a ceremonial groundbreaking for a new high school in Mascoutah.

His pool of friends and supporters does indeed appear to have dwindled since the beginning of the year, his once squeaky clean political reputation ruined by Blagojevich’s taint. High-ranking officials from both parties have repeatedly called for his resignation. And although he’s being mum on the question of whether he’ll run in 2010, so far one Democratic challenger, Obama protégé and Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, has thrown a pretty big hat into the ring.

By all accounts, Burris has been shunned in Washington, too. Illinois’ senior senator and assistant majority leader, Dick Durbin, who coincidentally grew up not too far from Centralia, in East St. Louis, has all but washed his hands of his junior counterpart, although Burris insists the men enjoy a good working relationship.

But with Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy in poor health and last fall’s race in Minnesota still undecided, Democrats are without those filibuster-proof 60 votes needed to pass bills that Republicans won’t like. So for the time being, Senate Democrats need Burris — and he knows it.

In the meantime, Burris says he’s focused on his work. He’s sponsored two bills to prevent the deportation of a family of Mexican immigrants living in Chicago illegally and cosponsored 23 pieces of legislation. He also serves on the Senate’s armed services, veteran’s affairs, and homeland security committees. During his visit to Illinois, he stopped by the VA hospital in Marion, the military aircraft manufacturer Boeing in St. Louis, and Scott Air Force Base, of which he also has fond memories having grown up nearby.

“My sister-in-law — you know they used to date those guys from Scott field. And we used to have some rumbles with those guys for coming in and taking our pretty girls,” Burris says, chuckling. “That’s why they give me the script. I get to running my mouth. I’m sure that’s gonna be on television. And that’s when they’re gonna say Burris is up there now talking about how he used to beat up on people.”

Mascoutah sophomore class president Nigel Williams and Burris chat about the young man’s career goals.

Then, as he’s prone to do, he brings the subject back home: “But some of them were fortunate enough to stick around and make their homes in Centralia, so they’re now Centralians.”

Only a fraction of Centralians came out to see Mayor Ault award Burris the key to the city. So the extent to which the love he has for Centralia is reciprocated beyond this banquet room remains unknown.

This much is clear: Burris, to borrow a phrase from hip hop, puts on for his city, famously telling the City Club of Chicago as questions swirled about his forthrightness in the Blagojevich affair, “I’m from Centralia, you all know me. OK?”

Doris Downey, Burris’ older sister, puts it this way: “Sometimes, your head gets bigger than where you come from. That’s not the case with Roland.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com.

Burris chats up his cousin Vernell (right), who ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Centralia and is the only Burris left in town.
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