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Pekin's Marigold Festival is named after Senator Everett Dirksen's favorite flower. Here's why he loved them

Dirksen Congressional Center
U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) plants marigolds at the White House in the 1960s.

For the Marigold Festival's 50th anniversary, Pekin is taking a look back to the celebration's roots.

The Marigold Festival was started to honor the late U.S. Sen. Everett Dirksen of Pekin, who died in 1969. The Dirksen Congressional Center's Chris Kaergard said the senator worked for about a decade to advance the cause to name the marigold the national flower, or if you want to get technical, the "national floral emblem."

It all began with a lobbying effort by David Burpee, a marigold seed company owner who chose Dirksen, an avid gardener, as his congressional champion for the cause. That wasn't easy, said Kaergard.

"Coming from the Midwest, he's not sure if he should be advocating for something a little more Midwestern," he said. "Illinois' other Senator, Paul Douglas, really wants the corn tassel as the national flower, although Dirksen is not quite sold on that, because he's not sure the cord tassel is really a flower."

Dirksen initially takes a reluctant approach, but he's gradually swayed by the more than 160 letters he and Burpee were to exchange over the next ten years.

"Dirksen ultimately picks up the cause and runs with it," said Kaergard. "(He) makes the argument year in, year out that we need the marigold. He compares it to the colonists who help settle America, how like our forebears is this lovely flower, robust, rugged and able to conquer extreme changes in temperature. He points out that you can grow the marigold all across the continental United States regardless of climate and that it will thrive in every environment."

Dirksen was passionate about gardening. Tiffany White, the executive director of the Dirksen Congressional Center, attributes that to his upbringing in a Pekin neighborhood densely populated by German immigrants, like his parents. Most of the German immigrants grew vegetables in their gardens, both for sustenance and as a means of supplemental income.

"Growing up in this environment, and growing up with a widowed mother, Dirksen had to learn the value of hard work at a very early age. And he tells stories about having to wake up at 5 a.m. and start tending to the gardens and the livestock," White said.

She notes that experience instilled Dirksen with his work ethic - and a love of nurturing life to reap the literal fruits (and vegetables) of his labor.

Dirksen grew many plants in his garden, but it's the marigold that he's most often associated with today, even though his efforts to have the flower recognized as the national floral emblem were ultimately unsuccessful.

Over the decades, the Marigold Festival has blossomed into a celebration of the Pekin community. But this year is all about taking a look back at how it all started, said White.

"It all started with this idea that our community needed to really preserve the legacy of its favorite son. And I think that it's so appropriate that a festival such as ours began out of this idea to honor somebody like Dirksen, because the festival's purpose is to gather people together," she said.

White said the Marigold Festival also provides an opportunity to focus on the things which unite the community of Pekin, rather than what divides it.

"How appropriate for us to feel that way. When Senator Dirksen established his legacy upon principles of cooperation, and collaboration and compromise and mutual respect, it's just very fitting that I guess whether we intended to or not, we're continuing to honor him, not just in name, but in spirit," she said.

The Pekin Marigold Festival runs Thursday through Sunday. Click here for more information on this year's event.

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Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.