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Home is where your heart is
Dick Durbin discusses life in Springfield, Chicago and Washington
By John Moody

It seems like a simple enough question: "So, where do you consider home?"

The answer gets complicated when you have a demanding job that puts you on the road most weeks bouncing between Washington, Chicago and Springfield.

When the question is posed by your wife - even when you're a U.S. Senator - the response had better be a thoughtful one.

Dick Durbin answered Loretta Durbin's query like this: "Wherever you are."

He chuckles at the telling of the story, but he follows with: "Thank God I had the right answer." Of course, his words ring true - what happily married man would disagree? Despite a grueling work-week commute that takes him from their longtime home, the two-story Colonial near Washington Park, to his Senate office in Washington and back, with frequent stop-offs in Chicago, he says his home is here in Springfield.

"Well, there's so many friends that we have here for 30, 40 years or more," he says from his office on South Eighth Street, near the Lincoln Home National Historic Site. "I start with Gene and Ann Callahan and their whole family. I worked with him in (former U.S. Sen. Paul) Simon's office. He's my closest friend politically and just a terrific fella I know will always be there when I need him, and I hope he feels the same way about me."

So, why here? Why not the big city, closer to the action?

"It's interesting. I made a decision in this congressional career to be a commuter, which meant that for 28 years now, I make about 48 round trips a year between Washington and Illinois," he says. "Some weekends I'll go back to Chicago and back to Washington, but every other weekend here in Springfield, at least. Loretta is here, and she joins me in Chicago when I'm there."

The Durbins, both from the East St. Louis area, arrived in town 41 years ago this summer to begin their Springfield life together.

They came for a job, his first out of law school in Washington, D.C., and they've called it home ever since. They unpacked their belongings in a rented house as young parents with a baby daughter in tow and a new son on the way. They would raise and educate all three of their children here.

That essential connection to place comes through in the senator's voice as he speaks of his adopted hometown. It comes through as natural as black soil and open space and seasonal extremes that natives here know well. It is the sound of a good fit, a nice match, like comfortable shoes or an old, reliable truck. Listen.

"Our home, our neighborhood, Washington Park are really our home base," he says. "My idea of a great moment is to be at home on the deck with friends enjoying just a quiet Springfield evening."

You're thinking you might say that very thing. But you probably don't have much choice. Just as you likely don't have Potomac Fever, where power is the cure for everything in Washington, where the bright lights of Capitol Hill cameras beckon and make stars out of also-rans. Not to worry; Durbin isn't cut that way, and there's certainly nothing also-ran about him.  

"He's an extremely hard worker and not a schmoozer. He's a family man, and his faith is important to him; I know that," Gene Callahan says of his old friend. "He's not a big shot, not one to waste time."

For example, faced with the choice of an evening here on the prairie or an invite to some swanky soiree with the nation's powerful and elite, Durbin sees that as an easy call.

"I recall a couple months ago that we were having a barbecue, and we came off the deck. It was late; somebody had the TV on," he says. "And it was C-Span, and they were showing The Gridiron Dinner in Washington, and I looked out there, and there was the president in his tuxedo speaking to the Gridiron Dinner.

"And they panned the crowd, (and) I saw all these other senators and congressmen. And I thought, 'I would much rather be right here in Springfield, Illinois, at this moment. I'm going to get to hear the president's speech, and then I'm gonna have another glass of wine out on my deck.' So, that to me is what keeps me grounded and happy."

Grounded and happy - nice words, genuine and even Midwestern. By just about any account, he's managed to be successful, for his state, certainly, but more importantly, as a person. He is steady. The Durbins have been married since 1967. Heck, they've lived in the same house for 32 years.

When he's home, he and Loretta, who owns Government Affairs Specialists Inc., like to eat at Maldaner's; it's their favorite local eatery. And he loves to stop at Angela's on South MacArthur.

"Angela has a little store ... it's not even a storefront, it's a house," Durbin says. "She's Sicilian; I go in there when I'm home on Saturdays. I buy her little pizzas and her pastas and things. To me, that's great. Pick up all that, then go out to The Corkscrew and get a bottle of wine."

Washington Park, he says, has been an important part of his family life.

"My wife and I like to go biking," he says. "And, I managed to get some resources back to the community to improve the bike trail between here and Chatham, which we take from time to time."

For all the years the Durbins have lived in their Springfield home, Ron and Coleen Mays have been next door. Coleen Mays says both Durbins are good cooks; his particular strength is on the backyard grill, she says. The senator downplays all that with a laugh.

"I've all but retired (from cooking) because my wife is the best cook in Springfield; I'm just gonna say that flat out," he says. "I don't compete with her; I just stay out of her way."

The five Mays kids and three Durbin kids grew up together. They went to school together at Blessed Sacrament and played together on long summer days when you didn't have to worry so much about where your kids were. Coleen Mays loves her next-door neighbors.

"They are most like your very best neighbor," she says. "They are both very unpretentious. If you didn't know who he was, you wouldn't know who he was ... if that makes sense.

"Yes, he does putz in the yard; he does take out the garbage. He gets up and works on the gutters. I know because he has to borrow our big ladder."

They borrow each other's refrigerators if they need extra space during social events. Coleen Mays recalls picking up charcoal for the senator once when he ran out, "and he'll do the same for you if you need something from the store. He's so unassuming, so real."

When he's in town, the senator can be seen driving his old pickup truck. Loretta Durbin is a great gardener, her neighbor says, and "she feeds our cat when we're out of town."

Any political qualms about the Democrat next door? "Oh no, I was born and raised a Democrat," Coleen Mays says, so that's worked out well. Her only reservation comes out of sentiment.

"It's been a wonderful relationship. My fear is that someday they'll need a smaller place; that's going to be a really sad day," she says.

Anyone living a life in politics has critics, Durbin included, but most can probably agree that he's a decent person and in politics for the right reasons. That good-guy part of his persona can be traced to his beginnings in East St. Louis, the youngest son of a railroad man and a Lithuanian immigrant mother. He is appreciative for the start his parents gave him: They had "eighth-grade educations, but they really taught some pretty strict values, and I think that's what kind of guided me in my life."

Those guiding principles run on a line that tracks itself right here to those who helped him get his professional start, too. And Springfield is there from those early days of his political life hosting the whole thing.

He went to Georgetown for his undergraduate degree, graduating from the School of Foreign Service in 1966. He earned his law degree there three years later. A college internship in the office of Illinois Sen. Paul Douglas "hooked" him, he says, setting his sights on a career in government.

Durbin had arrived in Washington after transferring from Saint Louis University, and it was like merging into the fast lane. He had been there all of six to eight weeks when President John F. Kennedy was shot. He watched as a horse-drawn carriage moved JFK's body from the White House to the Capitol Rotunda. He recalls images of a sea of humanity moving around the downtown area of Washington. And he remembers standing on the grounds of the Capitol with thousands of others trying to come to grips with a national tragedy.

"As we were packed in there, people were standing with their little transistor radios, little plastic radios listening to the news, and as we were standing there, Lee Harvey Oswald got shot," he says of that dark week in American history. "So, it went right through the crowd like a newsflash."

Like many of his generation, he was a Kennedy fan on a number of levels.

"First, he was young, and most presidents had been old," Durbin recalls. "He was Catholic, and I was Catholic; you know, those things you identified with. He was Democrat, and I am a Democrat."

Just weeks before, Durbin had left his overnight job at a packing house at 7 a.m. and took his first-ever airplane ride at 2 that afternoon from Lambert Field to Washington "to be dropped down into this scene and completely dazzled by all this experience."

A St. Louis Cardinals fan since childhood, he shares a birthday with his favorite ballplayer, Stan Musial, but the two have never met, which seems impossible. Musial's photo graces an honored spot in Durbin's office.

"Just by coincidence, we have the same birthday," Durbin says. "So I spent my whole life bragging to the kids I grew up with that I had the same birthday, November 21st, as Stan Musial. And, I told everybody that story, but I have never met Stan Musial, never met him.

"And so, last November 21st, I'm having a little party out in Washington, D.C., with my staff, a birthday party. And my chief of staff comes and says, 'You got a phone call,' and I said, 'I'm in the middle of this party.'

"He said, 'No, no, you got to take it.' "

On the phone was Musial, who said: "Happy birthday, senator." To which Durbin replied, "Happy birthday, Stan the Man." Even a United States senator, a guy with some celebrity of his own, can be awed by a childhood hero.

Eventually, when the time came to start earning a living, opportunity did come knocking, and it wore horn-rimmed glasses and a bow tie. Enter Paul Simon.

"I wouldn't be here today without him (Simon)," Durbin says. "I learned so much from him; he stood by me when times were tough, when I lost elections. It was my honor to succeed him in the United States Senate."

Durbin's first job was parliamentarian of the Illinois State Senate; the offer came from Simon.

"Paul Simon, the lieutenant governor, presided over the Senate. We had been friends for a number of years and worked on some campaigns together," Durbin says. "And he hired me fresh out of law school. And I didn't know the first thing about being parliamentarian of the Illinois Senate. And I came in totally scared and determined to get it right and learned the ropes."

And, just like that, a career in public service was launched. In June 1969, law degree in hand (he skipped his commencement at Georgetown because he was broke and in a hurry to get to work), Durbin pointed a loaded-up truck westward.

"My wife and I had a baby girl, Christine, and another baby on the way, Paul," he says. "And so, I sent Loretta and our new baby on the plane to meet me here in Springfield."

Riding shotgun that day in the U-Haul was their 100-pound dog, a Newfoundland named Johann Sebastian Black. Coming over the mountains of western Maryland and West Virginia, the country opens up before the westbound driver unevenly for hours, until gradually it flattens, and you can see far to the horizon where bowl of sky meets disk of Earth. For the young Dick Durbin at the wheel that day, his future was unfolding before him like the vistas outside the window of that rented truck.

"So, I drove cross-country, and I didn't know anybody in Springfield except Paul Simon and Steve Walko," Durbin says. "I was related through marriage to Steve Walko, who used to have a music store on Second Street, Walko's Music. And so, we called ahead and Steve said I could park the truck behind his music shop on Second Street."

They found a small house to rent, and soon their second baby had arrived. They were settled and home.

Durbin turns 66 later this year. He was first elected to U.S. House of Representatives in 1983, where he remained until winning Simon's Senate seat in 1996. He became party whip in 2005. But he does remember what it's like to struggle and worry.

He gave a speech a few years back (you can look it up on the Internet) in part about being a young father with a new baby girl with serious health issues. Durbin, a law student at the time, had no insurance. Anyone who's ever been poor, even for a relatively short period of time, does not forget the experience. No matter your status later in life, you can still call up that old, gnawing feeling. The helplessness, the fear, the sound of a sick baby crying.

Granted, he had options and brains and thus hope. He was, after all, pursuing an advanced degree at one of the nation's finest academic institutions, Georgetown University, but he was broke ... as broke as a graduate student. And, he had the added pressures of being a new father, which are formidable in the best of circumstances.

To save money for college, he worked nights in a packing house called Hunter Packing Co. in East St. Louis. Part of his success with voters, his ability to relate to people in a tough spot, must come out of those life experiences.

Callahan likens him to a five-tool player in baseball.

"I believe it takes ability, integrity, perseverance, compassion, loyalty and a sense of humor," Callahan says. "That's what I think it takes to be a good public servant, and Dick Durbin has all those qualities.

"Durbin's a five-tool player plus one. If this were baseball, he can run, field, hit, hit for power and throw. The plus-one is his sense of humor."

He does have a generous laugh. It comes out easily and vigorously, and he doesn't mind poking fun at himself. When recalling his football-playing days at Assumption High School, he says he played on the line, but he wasn't a starter, and the coach put him in "any position where you couldn't touch the ball."

Barry McAnarney, who managed Durbin's first campaign for Congress, remembers a brilliant and passionate candidate who was a great campaigner.

"He's the best," McAnarney says. "He would walk into a room, and he could do something that Paul Simon taught him: He'd shake hands with a guy and repeat his first name, 'Nice to meet you, John. What do you do, John?' And then, 'Nice visiting with you, John.'

"He was able to work a room with 200 people, and on the way out, he could remember names. He really enjoyed the campaigning."

McAnarney says while it's fashionable to bash politicians, people should not lose sight of the fact that the good ones are there to help.

"They can really help you," he says. "Dick has done so much for Springfield and for Illinois. What a standup guy."

Given the seriousness of his job, Durbin's tone turns appropriate to the subject with a question about a recent week in Washington.

"It's all about the economy and putting people back to work in Illinois and across the nation. I mean, that is the No. 1 issue," he says. "We've got a lot of things we're dealing with, trying to help the unemployed, but also dealing with helping small businesses, particularly trying to help them find credit so they can expand their payroll."

And if President Barack Obama's star has faded in some circles, Durbin remains a believer.

"I think Americans are impatient. When they identify a problem, they want it solved. And, I can understand that. I have the same feelings," he says. "Some of the challenges the president faces will take time. We're starting to deal with them, and I believe we will deal with them effectively, but I can't think of a better person to be in the job than Barack Obama.

"I know this man. I know him well. I know his values. And I've watched him make these critical decisions, lead our country, lead the Congress. I think he is the right person for this moment in history."

The Durbin kids grew up nicely here in Springfield. The played sports, mostly soccer, and went through Catholic schools. Paul, an attorney, and Jennifer, an artist, both live in the New York City area. Their father, who likes it just fine here, says he doesn't quite understand the attraction, but he sounds proud of them both.

Christine, the oldest child, the baby girl who flew back to Springfield with her mother while Dad drove from Washington in the rented truck, sadly passed away in late 2008 at age 40. She had battled a congenital heart defect. Near the time of her death, Durbin was quoted at Camp Butler as saying, in part: "Family is the most important thing."

On the street near his office, he accommodates a young family from northern Illinois, Mom and Dad and three young sons, when they ask to take a photo with him. The thermometer this day is closer to 100 than 90, but the family is nice and so is the senator.

They visit a little about the youth baseball tournament that has them on the road. They're checking out Lincoln's Springfield as they make their way back north to Joliet from St. Louis. Photos are snapped, and as they begin to leave, Durbin crouches low to offer advice to the three little ballplayers, heads all blond and handsome.

"Now," he says. "You need to get your parents to take you to Cold Stone Creamery for ice cream."

This is one politician who knows what the people want.

Story published Friday, September 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 5 )

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