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New theatrical production will focus on the final days of U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen of Pekin

Senator Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), Senate Minority leader, sits atop a table as he talks with newsmen on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Aug. 3, 1965. (AP Photo/Henry Griffin)
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AP
Senator Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.), Senate Minority leader, sits atop a table as he talks with newsmen on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Aug. 3, 1965. (AP Photo/Henry Griffin)

The Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin is commissioning a new theatrical production based upon its namesake.

The as-yet untitled work was the brainchild of Tiffany White, the congressional center's executive director. The Pekin native has long been interested in politics and Dirksen's life, but she said it wasn't until she came into her current job role that she began to feel an emotional connection to the Republican senator who was pivotal in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

She's given speeches about Dirksen's life and legacy as part of the Illinois Humanities speakers' circuit, but White said that wasn't enough.

"No matter how well I mastered my own art of oratory, I felt that something was missing, that my words were just inadequate in getting other people to feel the way that I was feeling," she said. "And so this had been kind of heavy on my heart in my mind until this one day when I was sort of struck by the lightning rod of the idea about a play."

White, a former congressional intern for U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Peoria), was familiar in passing with Wade Dooley, another former LaHood intern who now works in New York as a playwright. The two were introduced through a mutual friend, and they began laying the groundwork for the Dirksen production.

Dooley, a Bartonville native, said he'd heard of Dirksen before, but it wasn't really until coming out to visit the congressional center in Pekin that he began really learning who he was. There are only a handful of audio and video recordings of the Pekin senator available online, but the congressional center holds a treasure trove of documentary material unavailable elsewhere.

"I think it took time, and it took going to the center to sort of find out who he was as a person, and get to know him more in that way and feel like you sort of have sat with him and talked with him," Dooley said. "And I think that's what we really want the show to be like."

The play is set at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. in September 1969, just days before Dirksen's death from lung cancer complications.

"So a reporter, a young Black female reporter, has been sent to talk to him, to do some reconnaissance work for a story that a television program wants to feature him on. And that's the play," said Dooley.

Toward the end of his life, Dirksen would often joke the hospital was his second home. Dooley said when Dirksen entered the hospital, he brought a briefcase full of work with him, much of it relating to the ongoing Vietnam War.

A heavy smoker, Dirksen famously didn't carry his own cigarettes, because bumming smokes also gave him the opportunity to strike up conversations with someone new.

Dooley said he's come to admire Dirksen's attitude on working with political rivals.

"I think a lot of people in the theater world especially might say, you know, 'oh, great, another play about an old white guy,' you know, but I really feel like his message of unity and bipartisanship, and I just think so resonates today, in fact, resonates even more than I thought it did before I started working on this," he said.

"Wade and I are both very captivated by Dirksen's rhetorical style, and just his approach to difficult issues and difficult people," added White. "He, of course, had this reputation for bipartisanship and compromise, particularly as it related to making the Civil Rights Act of 1964 possible, but the quality of his character goes a lot deeper than that."

White said Dirksen struck a "truly unique" balance between principle and idealism, while remaining flexible enough to avoid dogmatism.

"He just brought a level of dignity and respect to the position of federally elected office and a spirit of statesmanship that I think a lot of people are actually yearning for today," she said. "And so we think, and we hope, that that will connect with people that will resonate with people, and I think inspire an entire generation of Americans, both in civic life and in elected office moving forward."

Dooley said he's working to refine a draft of the show. He's expecting a completion date of sometime this spring. Then it comes down to finding a director, actors, and a venue. Dooley said Chicago or Washington, D.C. would be ideal cities for a production.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.