||NOTE: The following artilce
first appeared in the Pekin Daily Times on September 7, 2004,
and subsequently in the Marigold Festival Supplement dated Septebmer
On August 12, 1969, just before the U.S. Senate recessed for
a few weeks, Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen held a press conference
in his office. It would be his last. Dirksen seemed relaxed and
in a genial mood, chatting amiably with reporters and joking
with his staff. To the casual observer everything seemed normal
- but it was not. Doctors had just told the Senate Minority Leader
he was seriously ill. They had discovered a spot on Dirksen's
right lung and suspected cancer. A second x-ray on the 14th showed
the tumor had grown, making an operation necessary.
To prepare, the senator from Pekin rested for three weeks at "Heart's
Desire," his home outside Washington DC, rummaging in his beloved
garden and working on a memoir he would never complete. A realist,
Dirksen transferred title to most of his property to his wife,
Louella. He also gave her a pre-signed resignation from the Senate
if the operation left him incapacitated. He loved the Senate,
and it was ever on his mind.
Dirksen entered Walter Reed Hospital on Sunday, August 31, to
ready himself for the operation two days later. He took with
him a briefcase loaded with work, the contents of which were
transferred to The Dirksen Center several years after his death.
These documents show the amazing breadth of his interests and
the substantial burden of his office.
The briefcase contained notes for upcoming speeches, including
one in his own handwriting entitled, "God, Country, and Grandchildren:
Soliloquy with Grandchildren" in which he mused about the legacy
his generation would leave and harkened back to the lives his
parents led in Pekin. He made notes concerning the congressional
session about to end. Dirksen reviewed letters from constituents,
information about pending legislation, requests for appearances,
a plea from Illinois Governor Richard B. Ogilvie to revise the
federal revenue-sharing calculation, letters about federal jobs,
an early draft of what was called the "Everett McKinley Dirksen
Library Project," and much, much more.
On Tuesday morning, September 2, at 8:45, Colonel Alan R. Hopeman
and a team of Army surgeons began to operate. The spot on Dirksen's
lung could not be readily examined without surgery, but in surgical
terms it was in an almost ideal position, close to the periphery
of his chest, so that surgeons could remove it with only a small
incision. They did so without difficulty. The tumor, which had
grown to an inch in diameter, proved to be malignant.
As they had planned in this eventuality, the surgeons took the
next step of removing the entire upper lobe of Dirksen's right
lung. What had begun as a relatively simple operation became
major surgery consuming three hours. The doctors found no evidence
that the cancer had spread, however.
Dirksen's strong constitution and vigor brought him through
the procedure with flying colors, and his recuperation was rapid.
Mrs. Dirksen and their daughter and son-in-law found him alert
and cheerful when they were first allowed to see him on Wednesday.
The next day, however, Dirksen complained of pain and became
confused and restless, perhaps the result of a minor stroke,
insufficient oxygen, or even withdrawal symptoms from cigarettes
(Dirksen complained to his doctors and his son-in-law about not
being able to smoke). A second procedure became necessary to
replace the tube draining his lung.
Senator Dirksen suffered a crisis that evening, and it wasn't
until 8:00 Saturday morning that his doctors stabilized him.
This episode probably caused the bronchopneumonia which soon
developed. He rallied after this operation, though, even sitting
up in bed to eat his meals. He spent a restful night and ate
a good breakfast with Louella. He appeared to be past the immediate
crisis of a post-operation heart failure and was already making
plans to resume a work schedule. He even took a few minutes to
go over the papers in his briefcase. For example, a Seattle radio
station requested a tape about the marigold to which Dirksen
replied with this hand-written note:
Dear Day - Just now I'm languishing in a hospital as a result
of surgery. An op'g [operating] room no match for my marigold
gardens. Guess the tape must wait. Sorry.
The doctors assured his son-in-law, Senator Howard Baker, that
Dirksen was well on the road to recovery and that Baker could
travel to California to join President Richard Nixon. The optimism
Abruptly at 2:51 that afternoon, Sunday, September 7, Dirksen
collapsed and stopped breathing. His heart, which had enlarged
over the years to twice normal size, just quit. Army doctors
were at his side instantly, massaging his chest, trying to restart
his heart. They gave him sodium bicarbonate, calcium, and other
medicines. They used a defibrillator to try to shock his heart
into action. The doctors worked so vigorously that they cracked
five of his ribs. But Dirksen did not respond. At 4:52 p.m.,
the doctors pronounced him dead at age 73. Louella and Joy, their
daughter, were with him at the end. Thirty-five years ago today.
Mourning for the Senator was national and of a personal quality,
particularly among his colleagues in Congress and his friends
in Pekin. His body lay in state under the great dome of the Capitol,
an honor accorded to only three members of the Senate before
him. Richard Nixon and his Cabinet, with the vice-president and
many dignitaries, attended the funeral, after which the senator
was buried in Pekin.
In his eulogy to the fallen leader, President Nixon recalled
remarks Daniel Webster had made more than a century before in
testimony to a political opponent: "Our great men are the common
property of the country." That described Dirksen well. His
public service spanned an era of enormous change, and he played
a vital part in that change. Through six presidencies, as Nixon
put it, "Everett Dirksen has had a hand in shaping almost every
important law that affects our lives," and while he never became
president, "his impact and influence on the Nation was greater
than that of most Presidents in our history."
Pekin deserves much of the credit for Dirksen's influence on
the national stage. Everett Dirksen knew that and he said so
on a return visit to his hometown in 1961:
After long absences enforced by the duties of office in Washington,
there always comes back to me some lines from that poem which
I learned long ago, "Breathes there a man with soul so dead,
who never to himself has said, this is my own, my native land." This
is my own, my native land, my native city, where the family taproot
went deep many generations ago, and it will ever be so, no matter
what tasks life may assign me. All the major decisions in my
life have been made here . . .
The inspiration which I received here from a saintly mother,
a devoted family, steadfast friends, the constant faith of teachers
who taught me, the inspiration I found here in church, and the
atmosphere of a quiet and will ordered community were the forces
which helped to fashion those decisions, and for these I shall
be always and eternally grateful . . . .
END END END END END
Link to video of the funeral procession in Pekin