"Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come," intoned U.S. Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen of Pekin as he called for cloture on June 10, 1964, ending a prolonged filibuster against the Civil Rights bill. Arguments had lasted 57 working days, including six Saturdays. Senate passage on June 19 was a tribute to his persistent leadership.
"The civil-rights acts of the 1960s were his acts," wrote Neil MacNeil, author of Dirksen: Portrait of a Public Man. "He did more than sponsor them. He did more even than produce the necessary votes to enact them. He also did what few of his colleagues were capable of doing: He played the principal role in drafting their language, and, thus, he determined their exact legislative thrust and intent."
This year’s 40th anniversary is a milestone, but Dirksen’s role in civil rights legislation extended back to 1956, when, as GOP Whip, he lined up Republican support during President Eisenhower’s administration. By 1964, he was at the peak of his power in the Senate, in his sixth of 11 years as minority leader.
During 16 years in the House and nearly 19 in the Senate, Dirksen perfected the art of the possible. Never free from criticism, he recognized "the basic right of disagreement which lies at the core of a free society," noted MacNeil, Time’s veteran congressional correspondent. "His operating principle, other than his flexibility, was his pragmatism." He was a legislator-not a moralist.
As a youth, Dirksen honed his oratorical ability by preaching to the family cow. He later adopted the advice of orator William Jennings Bryan: to speak to the folks in the back of the audience. He colored his gifted rhetoric with humorous, homespun stories, Biblical references, and allusions to Lincoln. His tousled hair and rumpled clothes gave him a folksy appeal.
Born in Pekin in 1896 and a World War I veteran, Dirksen got to know his wife, Louella, when he played the prince and she the princess in a 1924 play celebrating Pekin’s centennial. They married on Christmas Eve 1927, after a courtship that included dinners at her home followed by singing together in the parlor while she played the piano. "Danny Boy" became his signature piece.
He never got the theater out of his blood, his wife wrote in her book, The Honorable Mr. Marigold. "His greatest stage was the floor of the Senate on Capitol Hill." The New York Times sent theater critics to cover him at the 1964 and 1968 Republican conventions.
During the early years of their marriage, she reported he took the pulpit at church to deliver the Sunday sermon. He’s said to have written 100 short stories, five full-length novels, and numerous plays, although only one play was published.
Dirksen won a Grammy in 1967 for Best Documentary Recording for "Gallant Men." It hit gold by selling more than 500,000 copies. His wife enthused that Dirksen was fifth among the best-selling male vocalists that year, topping Elvis, Dean Martin, and Bob Dylan. Two additional records and a children’s book followed.
On TV, Dirksen and House Minority Leader Charles Halleck began a program in 1962 that became known as the Ev and Charlie Show. Later called the Ev and Jerry Show when Gerald Ford succeeded Halleck as House leader, it continued until January 1965.
An 11-foot-tall bronze statue of Dirksen stands in Pekin’s Mineral Springs Park. Sculpted in 1975-six years after his death-by Illinois artist Carl Tolpo, it matches one on the grounds of the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield. The heroic Dirksen rises between a donkey in a fedora and an elephant, each with human arms. An oil can-in his words "mightier than the sword"-testifies to his persuasive ability to smooth relations between the Democrats and Republicans.
From its nearly six-foot-high granite base, the statue overlooks plantings that recall Dirksen’s love of gardening. A bronze marigold bouquet lies at his feet, while, in season, his favorite marigolds bloom below.
The Pekin Marigold Festival each September honors the unstinting crusade he began in 1960 to have the marigold designated our national flower. The Burpee seed company developed the Dirksen marigold, a tall, large, golden-yellow variety.
Although champion of the marigold, Dirksen served as grand marshal of the 1968 Rose Bowl Parade. Comedian Red Skelton composed a march named for Dirksen that premiered at that parade.
The Dirksen Congressional Research Center in Pekin, home to papers and memorabilia of not only Dirksen, but also congressmen Robert Michel and Ray LaHood, preserves the legacy of distinguished service. AA!