By Jared Olar
This week we reach the point in the history of the Pekin Public Library when Pekin was visited by a sitting U.S. president for the second time in just two years.
As we recalled last month, it was on Friday, June 15, 1973, that Pekin was visited by President Richard Nixon, who came to unveil and dedicate the cornerstone of the new library and Dirksen Congressional Center. Nixon came to honor the memory of an old friend and fellow Republican, U.S. Sen. Everett M. Dirksen of Pekin, whose papers were to be archived and made available for study at the new Dirksen Center.
Nixon had come to Pekin in 1973 at the invitation of Dirksen’s widow Louella. After Nixon’s return to Washington, D.C., however, his presidency foundered due to the Watergate scandal. Facing impeachment and the probability that he would be removed from office by the Congress, Nixon resigned the office of the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974, whereupon Vice President Gerald R. Ford became president.
The following summer, Mrs. Louella Dirksen invited President Ford to visit Pekin to dedicate the new Everett McKinley Dirksen Congressional Research Center, along with the new library building in which the Dirksen Center was housed.
The date for the dedication ceremony was set for Tuesday, Aug. 19, 1975 – not coincidentally, that was 73 years to the day since the cornerstone of the 1902 Pekin Carnegie library was dedicated and laid.
Just as had happened during Nixon’s visit two years earlier, the area adjacent to the library and Dirksen Center was filled with several thousand spectators and special guests. In addition to President Ford and the First Lady, the guests of honor included Sen. Dirksen’s widow Louella and their daughter Joy, son-in-law Sen. Howard Baker, and grandchildren Darek and Cynthia Baker.
Sen. Baker himself arrived in Pekin on Monday evening, Aug. 18, so he could personally crown the 1975 Miss Marigold Queen Karen Geier at the 3rd Annual Pekin Marigold Festival. Sen. Baker also introduced President Ford prior to his speech on Tuesday, Aug. 19.
Much of President Ford’s dedicatory speech was a recollection of the years that Ford spent in Congress when Dirksen was the Senate Minority Leader. “I learned a lot from Ev, and it is only fitting that others also should learn from him.”
Ford also recalled a comment that Dirksen wrote in 1968 in the days after Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated:
“Senator Dirksen said, ‘The time has come to rethink our history. It should have emphasis in every school, church and forum in the land. The legacy which is ours came from those who were here before us. Into this land they built their skills and talents, their hopes and dreams, their tears and sacrifices.
“‘Today we are the trustees of America. Upon us is a two-fold duty. The one is to those who came before us and gave us this land for our inheritance. The other is to those who shall come after us.
“‘Perhaps three words can state the whole case – dedication, discipline and duty.’
“I know that those words, spoken as only Ev Dirksen could say them, are somewhere in this edifice, reminding Americans of their continued need for dedication, discipline and duty. Yes, Louella, his words still echo.”
After his speech, the president and his entourage attended a brief reception in the foyer of the Pekin Public Library, and toured the interior of the Dirksen Center and library.
Even after Ford’s visit, it would still be a few months before the cornerstone of the new library and Dirksen Center – which had been unveiled and dedicated by President Nixon in 1973 – would be formally laid, signifying the completion of the new library facility. We will tell that story next week.