The Dirksen Congressional Center is set far back from Broadway Street on the eastern outskirts of Pekin.

Shade Park, with its busy baseball and softball diamonds, is nearby. So is Pekin Country Club.

In this pristine setting is the physical manifestation of a nationally known non-partisan, not-for-profit foundation dedicated to the study of the U.S. Congress.

The Dirksen Center is named for Everett Dirksen, one of Pekin’s most famous residents.

Dirksen died in 1969 at age 73 after serving on the Pekin City Council (1927-1931), the U.S. House of Representatives (1933-1949) and the U.S. Senate (1951-1969).

The Republican was the Senate’s Minority Leader from 1959 to 1969. During that time, he helped write and pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Civil Right Act of 1968.

The Dirksen Center’s goal is to create a better public understanding of Congress through archival, research and educational programs.

For more than 50 years, its programs have done just that. Tens of thousands of Americans have gained an insight into Congress’ people and procedures and the public policies Congress has produced.

There are nearly 200 archival collections at the Dirksen Center.

They include the collections of every U.S. representative from central Illinois’ 18th District and its predecessors since 1933, plus others like Neil MacNeil, who reported on Congress for Time Magazine from 1958-1987 and made regular appearances on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and CBS’ “Face the Nation” shows.

More than $1 million in grants have been awarded by the Dirksen Center since 1978 to nearly 500 scholars doing research on Congress and $850,000 has been dispersed for publications, conferences, workshops and directed research.

More than 2 million people visit the Dirksen Center’s websites annually. Among the visitors are teachers looking for lesson plans about Congress, students checking out the Congress for Kids site, and researchers browsing through digitized historical documents.

Frank Mackaman has been with the Dirksen Center since 1995 as a staff member.

He’s the contact for information about Congressional research awards, the Ray and Kathy LaHood Scholarships for the Study of American Government, archival collections and overall operations.

Asked about the most important job for the Dirksen Center’s three staff members, Mackaman took a few moments to ponder the possibilities.

“Our most important job is preserving and maintaining the center’s archival collections,” he said.

By that, he meant keeping the collections safe in a climate-controlled area and easily accessible for those who want to go through them.

“A fair amount of our collections is online, but the vast majority is in its original form,” he said.

The Dirksen Center is not a museum, Mackaman said.

“We’re more like a virtual museum,” he said.

First located in the Pekin Public Library, the Dirksen Center moved into its current location at 2815 Broadway in 2003.

Groundbreaking was held Oct. 24, 2002, and grand opening events were held Sept. 26 and 28, 2003.

Congressman Ray LaHood announced his decision to donate his papers to the Dirksen Center on Sept. 26, 2003.

He represented central Illinois in the House of Representatives from 1995 to 2009 and served as U.S. Secretary of Transportation under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2013.

The LaHood scholarships were established and first awarded in 2004. They provide financial support for tuition, fees and books for Bradley University juniors who are majoring in a discipline related to the study of the federal government.

In addition to its staff members, the Dirksen Center has a board of directors, senior advisors and national advisory council.

Steve Stein can be reached at 686-3114 or stevestein21@yahoo.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpartanSteve.