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Religious faith and public life: Reflections on Edward Burdick’s life

The legendary Edward Burdick, chief clerk of the Minnesota House of Representatives, departed from us one year ago this month. Still, his bronze visage as the “Voice of the House” at the entrance to the House chamber permanently greets visitors to the Minnesota Capitol.

Patrick Mendis with Edward Burdick

The legendary Edward Burdick, chief clerk of the Minnesota House of Representatives, departed from us one year ago this month. Still, his bronze visage as the “Voice of the House” at the entrance to the House chamber permanently greets visitors to the Minnesota Capitol. Burdick was the longest-serving and most venerated chief clerk and parliamentarian in the nation. As chief clerk, he introduced 80,953 bills — 23,268 were signed into laws by Minnesota governors.

At Burdick’s retirement in 2005, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty declared the impartial parliamentarian “a Minnesota icon and a Minnesota institution.” For legislators, Burdick was a revered public figure but an immensely private man. Former Senate Minority Leader the Rev. Dean Johnson, who also served in the House, christened Burdick as a majestic and humble “gentleman.” No one knew whether he was “a Democrat or Republican, Green Party, Independent, or whatever,” former Rep. Ron Abrams once said, but all legislators knew Burdick was “quintessentially Minnesotan.”

Our second president and founding father appeared to capture the very essence of a public servant’s mindset, like Burdick’s, when John Adams said, “My religion is founded on the love of God and my neighbor; in the hope of pardon for my offenses; upon contrition; upon the duty as well as necessity of supporting with patience the inevitable evils of life; in the duty of doing no wrong, but all the good I can, to the creation, of which I am but an infinitesimal part.”

Burdick had a remarkable and private relationship with God. I suspect his personal communion with God lay not as a worshiper or a spectator, but as an authentic practitioner of the Golden Rule. As a truly patriotic American, Burdick had distaste for polemical politics and self-righteous divinity. The duality of Burdick’s message to the world of policymaking and awe for the wonders of nature in daily life were as enduring and inspiring as the Republic.

Private faith revealed

In his final journey, this public man’s private faith was revealed when Burdick was in and out of consciousness at Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul. It was a remarkable Christmas experience: Over the past 20-plus years, we traditionally celebrated his birthday on Dec. 26, followed by our daughter Samantha’s birthday three days later. We always went to Red Lobster in Roseville. In 2010, my family and a few friends — including some doctors and nurses — celebrated his 89th birthday around his hospital bed. On Dec. 29, Burdick wanted Samantha to enjoy her traditional lobster dinner. She said, “Uncle Ed, we are not going to Red Lobster without you. We are going to stay with you.”

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As we sat around him, Burdick appeared to have a panic attack and began to repeat the Lord’s Prayer, asking for forgiveness as if he were ready to die. With sadness and tears in our eyes, we watched Burdick drift away even as the head nurse recommended quickly summoning a clergy for the final blessing. Late in the night, I called Fr. Kevin McDonough at Saint Peter Claver, who arrived near midnight for a final blessing. By then, Burdick had returned to lucidity. A Methodist by birth, the former chief clerk had rarely spoken to my Catholic priest but recognized him as a legislative chaplain. After the evening’s episode, they spoke as if they had always known each other.

Curious Father McDonough remarked, “Ed, I heard that you said the Lord’s Prayer so beautifully.” Burdick turned to us and asked, “Did I?” We all affirmed, “Yes, you did.” The priest questioned: “Ed, tell me, you hardly went to church — how did you learn to say it so well? In quick wit, Burdick said, “I wrote it.”

Our laughter cheered up the room. The pastor lightheartedly remarked, “You must have been a senior when Jesus Christ was in the kindergarten.” Burdick winked at us and said, “Yeah, something like that.”

The silence felt as if there was something important yet to come. “Father Kevin, please sit down. I need to tell you something,” the famous storyteller commanded. The tired reverend smiled and followed the instruction. “Father, I have never told anybody, even Patrick, but every night before I go to sleep, I always say the Lord’s Prayer. I pray for my staff, I pray for Patrick and his family, I pray for our country. And, I ask for forgiveness.”

In today’s world of political competition that triumphs over our sense of moral compass, private Burdick led a life of majestic grandeur in public life while surrendering humbly to God at night. Former Vice President Walter Mondale characterizes Burdick as a “gifted and pre-eminently fair clerk under both political parties over an unprecedented and sometimes turbulent period in our history. To have been so trusted by the leaders of both political parties over so many generations of public leadership is truly astounding.”

Enduring spirit remains

Burdick is physically no longer with us, yet his enduring spirit remains entrenched in the Capitol as a symbol of majesty and humility — the needed ingredients for government service and public leadership. The former vice president agreed when he said: “When I am asked what we should expect of public servants, I will suggest that we look to Ed Burdick as the perfect example of talent, training, devotion to the public process, honesty, caring and thoughtfulness to set the standard. He certainly served our state selflessly and brilliantly, setting the example for all of us for what it should mean to be a public servant in the highest sense of that word.”

In his illustrious and virtuous life, Burdick was committed to helping create a more perfect world through legislative action while practicing his religious faith in private. For me, that is genuinely American.

Patrick Mendis, PhD, is an affiliate professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University in Virginia. Mendis established the annual Edward Burdick Legislative Award at the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota — the alma mater of the author.


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