August 12, 2002

CHICAGO (Aug. 12)–U.S. Sen. Richard J. Durbin’s railroad heritage sparkled like a red fusee last month when the Illinois Democrat swapped stories, reminisced and joked with Illinois UTU officers and their families at a Capitol Hill reception.

The former New York Central Railroad yard clerk was an instant hit with the UTU crowd after he displayed a crooked finger that never quite healed following an injury he received during the 1960s while trying to climb through a cut of freight cars in the carrier’s East St. Louis yard.

The occasion for Durbin’s appearance was the annual Eastern Regional Meeting, held this year from July 28-31 at the Hyatt-Regency Capitol Hill. Twenty-five of the state’s 39 local UTU legislative representatives attended, but, in the words of Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo, “Out of 50 states, Illinois was the only one to be received by a U.S. Senator.”

That happened, Szabo said, because he arranged with Sen. Durbin’s transportation aide, Pat Souders, for the Illinois UTU to hold a “meet-and-greet” reception on Monday, July 29, with the Illinois congressional delegation in the Senate Armed Services Committee’s hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

But the House adjourned early, leaving only the state’s two senators in town. Both were invited, but Szabo said Republican Peter Fitzgerald did not attend.

“But with Sen. Durbin in the room, you would never notice that anyone else was missing,” Szabo said. “Dick bonded instantly with our members and their families. They knew he was a railroad man even before he told the story of how he injured his finger.

“And he stayed for more than 45 minutes–an enormous amount of time for a senator,” Szabo said. “He stopped and talked with every single UTU officer in that room, and with most of their families as well, and he posed for pictures with many of them.”

Durbin himself asked for a photo session when he was told that the 12-year-old son of one of the UTU officers had insisted on buying his first dress shirt and tie when he learned he was going to be introduced to his U.S. Senator.

“Where is that young man?” Durbin quipped as he asked to pose with the youth, one of about a dozen school-age children who attended the reception.

While describing the meeting as “mostly socializing,” Szabo said Durbin devoted several minutes to updating the members on legislative developments affecting rail employees. Noting that his mother, father and brother all worked for the New York Central, he reviewed his work on the recent Railroad Retirement reform bill and observed that the bill almost certainly would have failed if the Senate had not had a one-member Democratic majority. Durbin concluded the informational part of the program by noting that he and his colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee will be devoting much of their time in the coming weeks to securing adequate funding for Amtrak.

“Dick Durbin’s sincerity and his background as a railroad employee made a tremendous impression on our officers and their families,” Szabo said.

“But apparently our people made just as big an impression on Dick. I bumped into him a week later and the first thing he said to me was, ‘It was so great to be together with real railroad workers.’ And the second thing he said was, ‘How’s that little boy who bought his first shirt and tie?'”