MONMOUTH, Ill. — Everett McKinley Dirksen was the consummate Republican. His middle name honored President McKinley and his brother Benjamin was named for President Harrison. From the time he was elected U.S. Senator from Illinois in 1950 until his death in 1969, Dirksen was beloved by the GOP faithful — particularly those in heavily Republican areas like the city of Monmouth.
Many residents of the Maple City were thrilled in October 1958 when Dirksen announced at a local Republican rally that he had secured support for construction of a new Monmouth post office to replace the existing 1902 facility on South Main Street that was severely overcrowded and lacked adequate parking.
Construction of the new post office, at the corner of South First Street and East Second Avenue, began in April 1960 and was completed by November, not long after the election of Democratic president John F. Kennedy. It went into service on Dec. 3 and local Republicans invited Sen. Dirksen to a gala dedication ceremony that would be held in early January, before the Kennedy inauguration.
As fate would have it, Dirksen, who was the Senate Minority Leader, got bogged down in Washington during the first days of the new Congress, and the dedication had to be postponed until Saturday, Feb. 11–22 days after Kennedy became president. That’s when the fireworks began.
The construction contract, let to Felix Bengston of Galesburg, had specified that a bronze plaque recognizing President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield be installed in the post office lobby, and that had been done prior to the building being accepted by the federal government in November. Just a few days before the dedication, however, Monmouth Postmaster Eugene McKee received a telegram from the regional postal office in Chicago stating that the plaque must be removed from the wall until after the dedication. McKee dutifully complied, using a wrecking bar to pry the marker loose from the wall, leaving four holes in the plaster.
Dedication day began inauspiciously. Dirksen had been scheduled to fly into Monmouth by chartered plane that morning, but weather conditions moved the landing to the Galesburg airport. After a heavy fog settled in, the landing was again switched to Quad-City Airport and a welcoming committee was dispatched there to greet him. Then the skies suddenly cleared and Dirksen fooled everyone by landing at the Monmouth airport. A reception at the Colonial Hotel was abbreviated and a dinner for Dirksen was held in the Prime Beef Room, a half hour late.
In the afternoon, a crowd of 400 filled the Monmouth Armory for a dedication ceremony that included remarks by Dirksen, the regional post office operations director for Illinois, school board president George Bruington, Mayor Donovan Vance, Chamber of Commerce president Art Padella and Postmaster McKee. Musical selections were provided by the Monmouth High School Band, directed by Lester Munneke, and the Warren High School Band, directed by C.P. Patterson.
At the conclusion of the program, everyone walked half a block south to the new post office, where a flag was formally raised and tours of the facility were conducted. The missing plaque was likely the main topic of conversation among the cadre of GOP leaders, who were steamed that the new administration had taken down the Eisenhower plaque, presumably to be replaced by one bearing Kennedy’s name.
The following week, a spokesman for the Chicago postal office named Frank Dee announced that “we have received a directive from Washington that the contractor who built the Monmouth Post Office is to be reimbursed for the old plaque and that it is to be returned here in exchange for a new plaque.”
Dirksen responded to the report by saying, “I am deeply shocked to hear that the new postal department officials would stoop to such an act. I shall bring up the matter on the floor of the Senate.” He called the decision “unworthy of the present administration” and vowed to write a letter to Postmaster General J. Edward Day, the contents of which he would make public.
GOP officials had already announced intentions to fight any effort to change the plaque. Monmouth resident and whip of the Illinois House Rep. Robert T. McLoskey termed the change “unfair and silly … After all, everyone knows that the post office has been in use since Dec. 3, 1960, before Kennedy was inaugurated or Mr. Day had been designated as a future postmaster general.”
But the new postal administrators remained firm. The dedication had occurred while Kennedy was president, so the plaque had to bear Kennedy’s name.
“Well, I guess this is one way to rewrite history,” quipped one Monmouth Republican. “I wonder if they will change the name on the Lincoln Memorial, too?”
The new “Kennedy” plaque arrived April 5, 1961, and the old plaque was returned to the postmaster general to be melted down. New holes had to be drilled for the larger Democratic plaque, which hid the holes from the original plaque.
Postmaster McKee declined an invitation to appear in a newspaper photo of the new plaque, explaining, “That plaque has caused me enough trouble already.” Instead, post office custodian Henry Oswald was photographed polishing the plaque.
But the Republican juggernaut, led by the irascible Everett Dirksen, was not to be denied. On August 12, McKee received instructions from Washington to switch the plaques once again. On Monday morning, August 14, the original Eisenhower plaque was restored to its place of honor.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years,.