Burgess won't get to see dad's name on post office

Burgess won't get to see dad's name on post office

The last time I heard from Steve Burgess, he was ecstatic.

"Senator Harry Reid called my bill late last night, and it passed the floor of the Senate," he said in an email. "Two votes down and two to go."

That was in early August.

Nearly four months later, Senate Resolution 796 — which would rename the postal facility at 302 E. Green St., C, for James R. Burgess Jr. — remains stuck in the House Committee on Oversight and Government, shelved along with a number of other simple resolutions to rename post office buildings around the United States.

Steve Burgess died suddenly Friday, unfulfilled in his life's effort to have the government his father served pay him a lasting honor.

"I'm going to have to pick up the cause for him," Dawn Burgess, Steve's wife of seven years, said Tuesday. "It's up to me to keep up the fight."

James Burgess was a pioneer in many ways: the first black man — and still the only one — elected to a countywide office in Champaign County (in 1972), and possibly the first black person elected as a state's attorney in Illinois history.

Later, he was appointed a U.S. attorney for a large section of downstate Illinois.

More than anything, though, Steve Burgess wanted to honor his father as a leader of the 761st Tank Battalion, the first black armored unit to enter battle in World War II.

Late in 1944, the 761st, with 29-year-old Chicago resident James Burgess as one of its six commanders, entered the European Theater and eventually advanced almost to Czechoslovakia, as far as any Allied unit at that time.

Sixty-five years later and 13 years after his father's death, Steve Burgess began an effort to have the federal courthouse in Urbana named for his father.

"This is just devastating," said U.S. Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, who had met Steve Burgess in Urbana during his first campaign for Congress last year and picked up the cause to honor James Burgess.

"None of the post-office-naming bills have come up in a while. Chairman Darrell Issa had promised me that it would come up in the first round of post-office namings," he said, referring to the California Republican who heads the House committee. "Other circumstances precluded that from being on the agenda.

"The first thought was to name a courthouse. The federal courthouse got caught up in issues that were unrelated to his dad and unrelated to all of us. It was just this year that we were able to come up with the secondary plan of the post office, and I want to see that through to completion, not only in James Burgess' honor but Steve Burgess'."

Steve Burgess may have been disappointed that the Urbana courthouse would not bear his father's name, but he didn't let on.

"I was offered a couple of choices for a compromise, and I chose the post office on campus because of its proximity and use by university students and the community. My father was a graduate of the U of I law school in 1965," Steve Burgess said last spring. "I'm extremely humbled and grateful by the actions of our representatives in Washington to honor my dad who was certainly a trailblazer during his time. I would especially thank Congressman Rodney Davis for listening and supporting my cause and honoring my dad. It is my hope that his life story and accomplishments will be an inspiration to generations of this community for years to come."

Sadly, Tuesday morning was the second time in less than 24 hours that I had heard a member of Congress rue the often too-slow response of Congress and the federal bureaucracy. On Monday, it was Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, who bemoaned the slow federal response to disaster relief, such as the Gifford tornado.

On Tuesday, it was Davis' turn to lament the gridlock in Washington.

"This is one of the bad moments of being a congressman. You see some tragedy like this happen, and you realize that Washington doesn't work nearly as fast as you want it to," he said. "I wish we could have moved faster for Steve."

Dawn Burgess said her husband, who was 55, had suffered a brain aneurysm.

"We had no inkling what happened. He had a headache, and it kept getting worse through the night," she said. "He's been stressed a lot about getting the post office named for his dad, and waiting for it to go through Congress. That was always on the forefront."

Steve Burgess' sudden death recalled again for me one of the messages that Pastor Steve Lombardo of St. Paul's Lutheran Church offered at an emotional service Sunday. It was nothing particularly profound — we've all heard it many times — but it resonated amid the hundreds of people packed into the country church, many of whom had either lost homes to the storm or had friends or family who had been rocked by it.

"I would want to say hold onto your children and grandchildren. Hug them tight, because they can be taken from you quickly. Love them today," Lombardo said.

One more message from Lombardo, contained in a prayer that is particularly appropriate on this day before Thanksgiving:

"Oh Lord, help those beaten down, hurting, grieving people today. And Lord, help us all to continue to love and minister to each other. Thank you for the outpouring of your love in our community."

Turkey Trot time

Finally a reminder that Thursday morning is one of the great community events of the year in Champaign-Urbana: the Urbana Park District Turkey Trot at Crystal Lake Park.

Registration — it's all free — begins at 8 a.m. The "race" begins at 9 a.m. There also will be hot chocolate and raffle prizes.

But participants are urged to donate to the park district youth scholarship fund.

If I don't see you at the turkey trot, have a happy Thanksgiving.

Tom Kacich is a News-Gazette editor and columnist. He can be reached at 351-5221 or kacich@news-gazette.com.

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