Frank H. Mackaman has spent most of his career at The Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin, a not-for-profit organization that provides research and educational programs about the U.S. Congress. A native Iowan, he graduated from Drake University and received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Missouri.

He and his wife, Kathleen, a special education teacher in Pekin, have two sons.

Tell us about your background, schools attended, family, etc.

If there is a typical Midwestern upbringing, that describes mine. I was born in 1950 in Clear Lake, Iowa. Two brothers followed me. My mother, an accomplished pianist who wound up playing in the Des Moines Symphony, was a homemaker, and my father sold soap in a four-state area for Proctor and Gamble.

We moved to Des Moines in about 1957, and Dad eventually became the director of Alumni Affairs at Drake University. I graduated from high school in 1968 and from Drake University in 1971. I received a Masters degree in American history from the University of Missouri, Columbia, in 1972, and a Ph.D. in 1977.

I married Kathleen Frederick, whom I met at Drake, in 1972. She teaches special education at Wilson School in Pekin. We have two sons, both in college.

Describe the Everett McKinley Dirksen Congressional Leadership Research Center. What are your duties there?

Ours is a small staff. Only two of us work full-time, one other part-time. Since we all do a little bit of everything, no one has a title. I spend my time working with the board of directors, representing the Center in the community, maintaining three of our seven Web sites, caring for our historical collections, responding to research requests, conducting the Center’s two grant programs, and imagining what the future will hold for us.

Talk about the importance of institutions such as The Dirksen Center and what they bring to the community.

There aren’t many institutions such as The Dirksen Center. We are, to my knowledge anyway, unique in the true sense of the word. Other similar archival institutions or research centers are usually part of a state historical society, a university, or the National Archives. There are many of those. We are the only free-standing, independent, not-for-profit organization in our line of work. Our purpose is to foster an understanding of Congress, its leaders and members, its procedures and processes, and the public policies it produces.

What we bring to the community is, admittedly, mostly intangible, especially if you define “community” geographically. Our neighbors in Pekin and Peoria don’t see what we do because our accomplishments don’t take the shape of products. The Dirksen Center is in the knowledge business. We create knowledge directly through publications or conferences, or more indirectly through grants to scholars and classroom teachers. We distribute knowledge, too, primarily through our family of Web sites.

We define two audiences, communities if you will, for our services: scholars from across the country, who conduct basic research about Congress and the federal government, and teachers, who create and pass along knowledge about the institutions of government. You almost have to take it as an article of faith that our research and educational endeavors serve a broader community good even if you can’t hold the results in your hands.

What are some of the milestones in the Center’s history?

Although the Center was chartered in 1963, we really began work in 1973 when we started to build the facility we currently share with the Pekin Public Library. Our first milestone was dedicating that building in 1975, an event President Gerald R. Ford attended. I joined the staff in 1976, though I would not rate that a milestone.

If I had to select five more achievements among the scores since then, I would cite the opening of Everett Dirksen’s Papers beginning in 1976; these materials provide scholars with a rich resource for studying Congress in the pivotal Great Society years. Acquiring Bob Michel’s Papers in 1989 greatly expanded our holdings; his papers now attract more attention than Senator Dirksen’s, largely because they contain fascinating materials about the House Republican leadership operation during Mr. Michel’s tenure as Republican Leader.

Establishing our two grant programs is something I’m proud of, too. The Congressional Research Awards go to historians and political scientists primarily. We’ve given away more than $500,000 to fund 300 projects. This year the Center supported research about the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, the making of trade policy in Congress, and the relationship of legislative strategy to American political thought, to name just three. The Robert H. Michel Civic Education Grants go to classroom teachers to develop simulations, Web sites, lesson plans, and the like, all related to teaching government and civics. In total, we budget $100,000 each year for these programs.

You mentioned five. What are the other two major achievements?

Our summer workshop for teachers, Congress in the Classroom®, certainly counts as a milestone. Each summer for the past 10 years we’ve brought teachers from all over the country (and the world) to meet with political figures and scholars to exchange information about Congress and to learn ways to teach the topic more effectively. Demand has so far outstripped our ability to meet it in a traditional format that we launched an online version of the workshop in September.

Finally, I have to mention the Center’s presence on the Internet. We have, for example, a group of five sites in a Web suite (http://www.dirksencongressionalcenter.org), each designed to meet a specific need our users have. One of the sites, CongressLink, recently won a national competition sponsored by the American Political Science Association. It’s also been singled out for excellence by the New York Times, USA Today, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and PBS, among many others.

This list could go on. Our most significant achievement, however, isn’t a program or an activity, at least in my view. It’s that the board of directors selected a mission, articulated a vision, and has had the discipline to stick to both. There’s much more worth doing, even in our relatively narrow area of interest, than we can possibly accomplish. We recognize that and make hard choices to do only that which we can do well.

How do you measure success?

Measuring success in this line of work is more art than science. I like to refer to our achievements as a series of stories about people who have used the Center’s resources to seize an opportunity that otherwise would have passed them by.

Hilary Conklin is an example. An accomplished teacher at Horace Mann Middle School in Franklin, Mass., Hilary found her students struggling to understand how our government has evolved. In May 2001, the Center awarded her a Robert H. Michel Civic Education Grant, and by September, Hilary had created 15 lesson plans and posted them on our CongressLink site. Now thousands of teachers can use those lessons in their classrooms. The Center made that possible.

Another story involves someone who visited the Center in person. Nicole Mellow, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin, received a Congressional Research Award two years ago to analyze the growth in partisan conflict in Congress since the 1970s. She examined the files in Mr. Michel’s Papers related to Republican Party politics and legislative strategy on such topics as trade, welfare, and social security. She described the value of his papers this way: “Communications between party leaders, notes of strategy meetings, exchanges between party leaders and supportive interest groups, and documents from leaders to rank-and-file members provide evidence for the ways in which the party sought to regain majority status in the House.” Nicole has begun to publish results based on her research at the Center. These kinds of stories testify to the worth of the Center’s work.

You’re currently involved in leading a building project for the Center. Tell about the project and give an update.

In October we broke ground for a 5,300-square-foot facility in Pekin. The primary purpose in building is to provide better care for our historical materials. Presently, we store about 1,000-cubic-feet of records off-site, and it makes more sense to locate them in one place with state-of-the-art environmental conditions. The new building will permit us to make better use of technology in our programming, too.

There are two broader effects as well. First, the Pekin Public Library has agreed to purchase our existing space to expand their services—a significant benefit to the community. Second, our new building, which has a striking design, will be located in one of Pekin’s growth corridors. We hope that helps put us on the map. We plan to occupy the building late next summer.

Talk about your work as a political science professor at Bradley University.

I teach an honors course on presidential leadership at Bradley. It’s a marvelous experience. Last term, students from five different colleges enrolled. They provided an equally wide range of perspectives on the topic. I teach because it keeps me current on a subject dear to my heart, the American presidency, and because, at least for a few weeks, I remember what it’s like to be in a classroom.

How do you balance the two time-consuming positions?

I enjoy them both so much that I’ve never thought of them as time-consuming. You were formerly director of the Gerald R. Ford Library and Museum in Michigan. Discuss your work there and how you became involved with the program.

After spending a little more than 10 years at the Center right out of graduate school, I began to wonder how effective I could be in another job. It happened the director of the Ford Library knew of my work, and President Ford had been impressed by one of our programs, so I got a call.

The position appealed to me because of the contrast between it and the Center. I went from a small non-profit to a large government agency, from studying the Congress to studying the presidency, from a small budget to a large one, from quick decisions to painfully slow ones, from working for a board to working for a bureaucrat.

I got all I bargained for and more. The historical collections in a presidential library are unsurpassed in their variety, richness, and appeal to researchers who study the federal government. President and Mrs. Ford are simply wonderful people. Imagine how I felt at my first meeting of the board of the Gerald R. Ford Foundation when seated around the table were Henry Kissinger, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, Paul O’Neill, Bill Seidman, Brent Scowcroft, Frank Zarb, and a dozen other, shall I say, “well-connected” friends of the Fords. It was a heady experience.

Government agencies—and presidential libraries are part of a federal agency—aren’t known for their inventiveness, but we did make strides at the Ford Library and Museum. We completed the first redesign of the museum’s core exhibits and served as the test site for a number of technology projects, for example. I also served on Vice President Al Gore’s first “reinventing government” project in the National Archives.

Mostly because of my experience in Michigan, President Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, appointed me to the Historical Advisory Committee of the U.S. Department of State in 1998—another fascinating assignment in which I’m still involved.

You were also a history professor at the University of Michigan. What prompted your interest in history and political science?

I’m old enough to have forgotten how I became interested in these subjects. My parents were history-minded, though. I’ve often said I value history not for the facts or for precise historical knowledge but for the way it encourages someone to think, to question, to be curious.

What do you enjoy about teaching? Do you consider yourself an educator first?

I consider myself a student first—not an educator. My students give me more inspiration and knowledge than I suspect I impart to them. What I enjoy most is when a student begins to link the topics we discuss in class, in this case leadership, with their own experiences on campus, when the abstract becomes real.

This is your second appointment with the Center. How are your duties different now, and what brought you back to central Illinois? 

We returned to Illinois and to The Dirksen Center in 1995 after more than eight years in Michigan because I like working in a small, nimble organization where your successes and failures stare you right in the face; there’s no place to hide. I tired of government bureaucracy.

My duties at the Center probably haven’t changed nearly as much as the way I carry them out. Technology is the single most powerful force for change. Five years ago we barely knew what the Internet was. Now almost all the interaction we have with our audiences is electronic. We have seven Web sites. I’m constantly amazed and challenged by the technology.

Do you believe the public is adequately informed about politics and history? What steps would you recommend to help educate the public further?

The simple answer is “no,” which is no surprise. It’s a conundrum because I believe there are far more sources of information, relatively easily accessible sources, to learn about our history and politics. But that isn’t what apparently interests people.

I have two suggestions. First, teachers of history and political science ought to think carefully about how both subjects have daily importance to the lives of people in all walks of life. Not enough effort goes to linking scholarship to everyday concerns. Second, I would like to see schools teach what some call “democracy appreciation” which is much, much different from current civics instruction.

Cynicism breeds contempt. When we’re cynical about our government because we believe it’s captive of special interests, or suffers gridlock, or can’t act in the best interests of “the people”—whatever that is—then we’re contemptuous about its history and functioning. Learning that democracy requires deliberation, negotiation, delay, and compromise to succeed, and giving students actual practice in those skills, might engender more respect for our way of governing.

More capable people than I have tackled this problem and still the results fall well short. I don’t know what the answer will be.

With your interest in politics, have you ever considered running for a political office?

I did win election to the Pekin Community High School Board of Education in 1984 by following the first rule of politics—enter a race where there’s no opposition. Unfortunately, I forgot that rule when I ran unsuccessfully for a spot on Pekin’s Park Board in the late 1990s. My career in elective politics is behind me.

You’re active in many community health and education initiatives. How do you choose which community activities to devote time to?

I’m selfish about it. I choose activities that will teach me something new. In fact, I avoid commitments that parallel too closely what I do in my job. I’ve devoted most of my volunteer time in the past four years to serving on the board of Progressive Health Systems and Pekin Hospital. I’m in my second year as chairman. My reward is learning about a complicated, fascinating, and exasperating field of endeavor—something completely removed from the work of The Dirksen Center. Serving on that board is like going to graduate school—intellectually stimulating.

What does the future hold for The Dirksen Center and you?

I’m glad I don’t know. The fun is anticipating the unknown. IBI