NOTE: The following article by Dirksen Center staff member Frank Mackaman first appeared in the Pekin Daily Times on September 7, 2004, and subsequently in the Marigold Festival Supplement dated September 8.
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 proved premature.
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 . . . .
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