Senator Richard J. Durbin isn’t just one of the most powerful—and down-to-earth–political leaders in the United States. He is our #1 claim to fame as Springfield Lithuanian-Americans, and one of Lithuania’s best friends in Washington.
Formerly Assistant Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, he was the second highest-ranking U.S. Senator and only the fifth Illinois Senator in history to serve as a Senate leader. In January 2013, he was appointed Chairman of the Senate’s Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.
Many are familiar with what Senator Durbin has accomplished on U.S. consumer issues like food safety and financial regulation. We in Springfield are grateful for his role in the creation of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Senator Durbin’s ethnic Lithuanian profile is less well-known outside of Central Illinois.
Dick Durbin is the son of Ona Kutkaite (Kutkin–possibly from Kutkis) Durbin, who was born in Jurbarkas, Lithuania in 1909. In 1911, his maternal grandmother and his mother (two years old at the time), aunt and uncle all immigrated to East St. Louis to join grandfather Kutkin.
One family artifact that Senator Durbin treasures is the small contraband Lithuanian-language Catholic prayer book printed in Vilnius in 1863, like the one pictured here, that his grandmother carried with her to America. For more than 40 years, publishing, teaching and speaking in the Lithuanian language were banned by the Czarist Russian rulers of Lithuania.
Senator Durbin explained: “My grandmother, as defiant as she was, had this prayer book and she wasn’t going to surrender it—and she brought it with her to this country. That said something about her, but it also said something about America that she knew when she came here, her right to practice her religion would always be protected.”
Senator Durbin’s parents Ona and William were railroad employees in East St. Louis. After finishing grade school and high school there, Dick earned a B.S. from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. in 1966 and a J.D. from Georgetown’s School of Law in 1969. While in D.C., he got his first taste of national politics interning in the office of Senator Paul Douglas (D-IL).
Dick moved to Springfield as a new lawyer with a young family in 1969 for his first job: legal counsel to Lieutenant Governor Paul Simon. From 1972-1982, he was counsel to the Illinois Senate Judiciary Committee. He won his first election—to the U.S. House of Representatives–in 1982. Though he commutes between Illinois and Washington, his primary residence has been in Springfield since 1969.
That means many here have crossed paths, over the years, with Dick and his wife Loretta and their three children: Christine (deceased in 2008), Paul and Jennifer. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, my family lived one block south of the Durbins on S. State St. (in Blessed Sacrament Parish), and my older sister Terry, a teenager at the time, was called on to babysit the young Durbin children.
When visiting from out of town, I remember putting up yard signs for one of his House campaigns in 1984 or 1986. Next came the “Singing Revolution,” when Dick was a great partner in the U.S. Congress for the many local Lithuanian-Americans lobbying for Lithuanian independence from the Soviet Union.
In April 1990, one month after small and embattled Lithuania declared the re-establishment of its sovereignty, then-U.S. Rep. Durbin stood on the steps of the Cathedral with several hundred fellow Springfield Lithuanian-Americans to rally for U.S. support. I remember seeing a hand-written note from Dick to my family on embossed House stationery admiring “the fire in your father’s eyes” during the demonstration. (Our 70-ish father was a World War II Lithuanian“displaced person” who had arrived in the U.S. in 1949.)
Also in spring 1990, Rep. Durbin authored House Concurrent Resolution 289, a non-binding resolution urging U.S. support for Lithuanian independence. As a leader of the Congressional Baltic Caucus, he also wrote/sponsored several other important resolutions in support of Lithuania before and after independence finally came in 1991. As a U.S. Senator since 1996, Dick has continued to assist Lithuania over the years, most significantly with its entry into NATO.
In 2012 he made a personal donation to the new “Lithuanians in Springfield” historical marker in Enos Park.
For more info about Senator Durbin’s life and times in Springfield: http://www.springfieldsown.com/features/cover-story/464/home-where-your-heart
See him holding up his grandmother’s prayer book during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing:
Here he is visiting Lithuania in January 2011, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Soviet massacre at the Vilnius TV tower: http://www.illinoistimes.com/Springfield/article-8287-durbin-commemorates-bloody-sunday-in-lithuania.html
See this link for Senator Durbin’s brief political biography. http://durbin.senate.gov/public/index.cfm/about
A warm thank-you to the Senator’s D.C. aide Christina (Norkus) Mulka, a fellow Lithuanian-American, who assisted with this information