A Pillar of Guiding Principles

Fifty years after his passing, Senator Everett Dirksen’s leadership carries on.

by Congressman Darin LaHood
At the signing ceremony for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson hands one of the pens he used to Senator Everett Dirksen.
At the signing ceremony for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson hands one of the pens he used to Senator Everett Dirksen. Photograph courtesy of The Dirksen Congressional Center

As you crisscross the U.S. Capitol complex in Washington, DC, it is hard to miss the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Named to honor central Illinois icon Senator Everett Dirksen, it serves as a reminder of an astute legislator and a humble leader who left behind a profound impact on Illinois and our country.

Rooted in the Midwest
This past September, we commemorated 50 years since Everett Dirksen was laid to rest in Pekin, Illinois. From his modest beginnings in central Illinois to becoming one of the most powerful men in Congress, Sen. Dirksen remained rooted in the Midwestern values that helped shape him into an esteemed leader—values that are still embedded in our communities today. 

Everett Dirksen was inspired by the people he served: individuals who work hard, play by the rules and have a strong faith in God. Born just outside of Peoria in Pekin, he put aside his education to serve our nation in World War I as a second lieutenant in the 85th Division, 328th Field Artillery Regiment. After the war, he returned home to work with his brothers in the Dirksen Brothers Bakery—but it wasn’t long before he felt another calling to lead. 

In 1932, Dirksen took those values to Washington, DC when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He served in this capacity for 18 years, representing Peoria and many of the communities I am honored to represent in Congress today. Following his years in the House, he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1950 and went on to become Senate minority leader of the Republican Party. He remains one of the most revered leaders in the history of Congress. 

Legacy of Leadership
As minority leader, Sen. Dirksen helped pave the way for landmark civil rights legislation to ensure all Americans receive equal treatment, regardless of who they are, under the law. Known as a unifier in Congress, his unassuming, congenial personality made him a beloved colleague to those who had the pleasure of working with him. 

Fifty years following his passing, Sen. Dirksen’s legacy of leadership continues through his memory by the work done at the Dirksen Congressional Center and through the individuals who followed him. They include leaders like President Ronald Reagan and House Minority Leader Bob Michel, whose foundational leadership can also be traced back to humble beginnings in central Illinois. 

As we reflect on Sen. Dirksen’s life, it’s his sound leadership that continues to inspire elected officials today. His legacy reminds each of us that remaining grounded by the people we represent should be a pillar of our guiding principles. Everett Dirksen was the model representative, and his legacy will continue to inspire principled leadership for generations to come. PM

Darin LaHood represents Illinois’ 18th Congressional District in Washington, DC.