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The voice of Burdick: The North Star of our time

Now more than ever, our nation needs more Burdicks as a compass to remind ourselves of the true nature of public service in a polarized world of culture wars and partisan politics.

Edward Burdick, left, with Patrick Mendis, middle, and Patrick Murphy, the current chief clerk and parliamentarian of the Minnesota House of Representatives, in 1984.
Edward Burdick, left, with Patrick Mendis, middle, and Patrick Murphy, the current chief clerk and parliamentarian of the Minnesota House of Representatives, in 1984.
Photo courtesy of the author

The late Honorable Edward A. Burdick was “the Voice of the House” for several generations of legislators in Minnesota until he died 10 years ago this month. He was a trusted friend to 16 different speakers — Democrats and Republicans — as well as more than 1,000 legislators, processing more than 80,000 bill introductions and witnessing more than 23,000 new laws signed by the governor.

Burdick never married but was a committed public servant wedded to an institution. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty called him “a Minnesota icon and a Minnesota institution” for his dedication to public service. U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar declared that he would forever be remembered as “the voice of the Minnesota House of Representatives.” Former Rep. Matt Entenza said: “Ed, you are our rock star” and “the Star of the North.”

Nation needs more Burdicks as a compass

Now more than ever, our nation needs more Burdicks as a compass to remind ourselves of the true nature of public service in a polarized world of culture wars and partisan politics.

Similar to my uncharted journey as a teenager coming to Minnesota from Sri Lanka on an American Field Service (AFS) intercultural scholarship, Ed had his own unfamiliar voyage. Born in Vernon Center, the 19-year-old “printer’s devil” for his father’s Vernon Center News publishing house rode his first Greyhound bus to the Capitol in St. Paul in February 1941 to begin a $5.50-per-day temporary job as page in the House. It was 10 months before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

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Ed began his legendary full-time tenure at the Minnesota House in 1947. Legislators unanimously elected him as chief clerk (the top administrator) in every biennium from 1967 onward. When he was elected in 1971 as the president of the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries (ASLCS), he gained fluency in American history and edited the Mason’s Manual — the official authority of rules, precedents, and legal basis behind parliamentary law that is still being used by most state legislatures in the nation.

Patrick Mendis
Patrick Mendis

Served almost 65 years

To recognize and honor his distinguished public service, the Legislature erected a bronze bust of Ed in the State Capitol at his first “retirement” in 1994. Ever since, he has been greeting visitors entering the House floor. However, his retirement was short-lived. At the urging of several speakers and legislators, he had to forgo two retirements and returned to work until 2005. Except for his federal and military service during the Korean War, Ed served almost 65 years of his 89-year life in the Minnesota Legislature.

During the 2005 legislative session, a bipartisan group of 28 legislators — 14 from each party — sponsored a bill to rename the adjacent Capitol complex edifice, located at 100 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, as the Edward A. Burdick State Office Building. A few other House members wanted to rename the building after the late U.S. Senator Paul Wellstone or President Ronald Reagan. However, the argument made by Rep. Marty Seifert to name the “people’s house” after a person “like Burdick, instead of a politician” prevailed. A bipartisan companion bill was also introduced in the Senate, but it was adjourned sine die with the session. This year is a good time to reconsider that legislation.

Outside of his decorated career, Burdick was not only a “father” to a legion of legislators, but also to many other people, including immigrants like me. Former speaker and current Transportation Secretary Margaret Kelliher once said to me, “You were his son, Patrick; Ed was like a father to me, too.”

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At first, Ed and I had nothing in common when I worked in his office in 1984. Our friendship began with a cordial talk over “Ceylon and Lipton tea.” I was born in Ceylon as a “British subject” until the island’s name changed to Sri Lanka in 1972. He said that his first two names, Edward Arthur, derived from two British kings. Yet, we both had an inherent dislike for British colonialism but enduring love for the United States and its founding ideals.

He became ‘Uncle Ed’ to my children

All through my graduate education at the University of Minnesota, Ed fed me, housed me, and clothed me — and later even edited my papers and books. He was at my wedding; my children called him “Uncle Ed.” We became the family we never had with our own parents. During the last four months of his life, I stayed with him by his hospital bed when, on a snowy night, he held my hands looking at the falling snowflakes through the glass-window, and told me gently, “It is time to go.” His last instruction was for me to go to the Ash Wednesday Mass at the St. Peter Clever Church to pray for him with Father Kevin McDonough.

Like on the chaotic legislative floor, Ed’s baritone voice reminded me that he sought the parliamentary “order out of chaos,” Ordo Ab Chao, in the restless hospital to find peace for those whose time had come to say “goodbye” on Ash Wednesday. Shortly afterward, I understood the biblical significance of Ed’s extraordinary intuition, remembering that “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” In that sense, former Speaker Phil Carruthers knew Ed quite well when he remarked, “We need tradition. We need rules. We need order. We need experience. And we need wisdom. And that is what the voice of Ed Burdick is all about.”

In my mind, I still talk to Ed. In my heart, I still look for him. In my soul, I know he is resting in peace. I still wish he were living among us.

Humility, honesty, fairness

Throughout his whole life, Ed demonstrated humility, honesty, and fairness — rare qualities in the meaningless noise and divisive hatred of our political discourse today.

At his funeral service, former Vice President Mondale, who met Ed in October 1948, captured the very essence of his inspirational embodiment: “I have known Ed for nearly 50 years, from his first days as chief clerk and parliamentarian, serving as the astoundingly 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.”

In every conceivable way, Ed is a living memorial for authentic Americanism and service to others. The sine die 2005 legislation should be reconsidered to rename the edifice as the Edward Burdick Legislative Office Building to brand “Minnesota Nice” for the rest of the nation to emulate.

Patrick Mendis, Ph.D., a former American diplomat and a military professor, is a distinguished visiting professor of culture and diplomacy at the Chinese Culture University in Taiwan. He established the Edward Burdick Legislative Award for graduate public policy students at the University of Minnesota and the Millennial Award for Leadership and Service for undergraduate journalism students at Harvard University in memory of his friend, mentor, and American “father.”


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