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One-to-one: Honoring Legendary Public Servant Edward Burdick

One-to-one is a section of News + Views where alumni interview each other. Every alum has a story to tell, from their personal interests or advocacy to interesting professional pathways and passions. And who better to tell that story than other alumni? Each article is as different as the alumni who write them. If you would like to interview a fellow alum for a future edition, please e-mail amason@umn.edu.

In this one-to-one, Sarah Lynch (MA '99) interviews Patrick Mendis (MA '84) about his creation of the Edward A. Burdick Legislative Award to recognize a student graduating from the Humphrey School for outstanding work in non- or bipartisanship in public policy or legislation. Its namesake, a 64-year veteran of the Minnesota House of Representatives, was known for his bipartisanship. Burdick passed away in March 2011 at age 89.


Edward Burdick

How did this Award come about?
When Edward Burdick retired from the Minnesota House of Representatives in 2005 after 64 years in public service, I told him that I would like to establish a scholarship or award at the Humphrey School in his honor. I then made an arrangement for him to have lunch with the late Prof. John Brandl in the summer of 2005 (John, who served in the House, recruited me to Humphrey School when I worked for Ed during the 1984 legislative session). During the last four month of his life as I was with him daily in three different hospitals, Ed and I talked about this hibernated idea. In the wintry January 2011, he agreed if I could find bipartisan support. I spoke to two former Democrat and Republican speakers who agreed to serve as bipartisan voluntary advisors. Ed also talked to one speaker who visited him regularly. After his funeral in March 2011, the former speakers and several others supported my bipartisan idea to have an award that reflects the legendary public service of Ed at the Humphrey School. Former Vice President Walter Mondale said that Ed’s “public leadership is truly astounding” and he is “a perfect public servant in the highest sense of that word” in a letter.

What did you respect most about the Honorable Ed Burdick?
Ed was truly a gentleman and a man of words, whom you can trust. He was honest and followed the law to the letter. Every time I drove, for example, he consciously reminded me of the speed limit. There was absolutely no rolling stop at stop signs. He once sternly said, “Patrick, it says stop.”

What lessons were the most insightful or empowering to learn from him?
He wanted to treat everyone with respect and believed it was the essence of America’s founding vision. He despised religious fundamentalists and political extremists who would not respect others with dignity for their diverse viewpoints. He once said that he liked our system of governance and freedom because it would organically provide us the check-and-balance and would surely make our democracy safer for everyone.

How do you apply the lessons you've learned in your teaching at George Mason?
George Mason University, like the University of Minnesota, is an international and highly diverse institution. The word “respect” is increasingly important in our multi-faced society whether you are faculty, staff, students, or alumni. We all need each other to create greater public goods. It is amazing how much I learn from our students, especially those professionals who have returned to graduate education.

What are the most important messages in your book, Commercial Providence: The Secret Destiny of the American Empire, which you try to instill for the reader?
As a student of American history, I wanted to know the meaning of America’s “Special Providence” and why the enlightened Founding Fathers subscribed to “Nature’s God.” During my research on Freemasonry and America’s founding vision, I learned that the Special Providence is celestial voices implanted at the heart of grand design of our nation’s capital and its architecture. These are embedded into universal symbols, which you may keenly observe all around Washington, D.C., especially within the Federal Triangle. The terrestrial triangle is a reflection of the celestial connection to the Virgo Constellation above the capital’s sky. Virgo is ruled by Mercury—the Roman God of commerce and communication. The Andrew Mellon Zodiac Water Fountain at the corner of Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues and the adjacent Federal Trade Commission, for example, illustrate these symbolic signs. So, our Special Providence is all about trade and commerce that would bind the nation and the world together, which is also reflected in the “Commerce Clause” of the U.S. Constitution. You will see the Ronald Reagan Center for International Trade at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue near the Department of Commerce—the book end of the Federal Triangle. The message is clear that our nation is not glued by religion, race, or even by language—but by trade and commerce, the voices of Nature’s God. This inconvenient truth is hard to digest for some, but the politics of reality is unfolding as America is increasingly becoming a global nation.

What was your first thought in "merging" the book idea and starting the Award?
Ed was an “iconic Minnesotan.” He never married but Ed was wed to a public institution; everyone considered him a wise father-figure. Even former Speakers Margaret Kelliher Anderson (Democrat) and Steve Sviggum (Republican) reportedly treated him as such. Ed gained his national reputation as an impartial parliamentarian and chief clerk—whether he worked for Democrat or Republican legislators. In my book, I wanted to capture the dual vision of Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian ideals and how their rivalry and ideas were reconciled “impartially” by George Washington as the unifying force for the new nation. For me, Ed represented the Washingtonian mindset in Madisonian action as he was naturally revered and respected by both Republicans and Democrats as their impartial parliamentarian and legislative counselor.

What do you want the Humphrey student and alumni community to know about the importance of this effort?
During his life as a public servant, Ed supported a wide range of charitable organizations and sponsored a number of minority students in their education. He once told me what mattered most at the end of day is not how much you make, but how much you gave away. The latter would never be lost. This award symbolizes in a small way of helping a Humphrey student so that Ed’s legacy of small giving continues. He often said that we don’t have to be wealthy, but it would make us healthier by giving a way to make a small difference.

Do you have any advice for those students who are interested in applying to receive the award?
As E. F. Schumacher said, “Small is beautiful,”—and, Ed always thought that there are less fortunate people than us. No matter how small, we could make a difference, as Ed did. It is true that a small drop of rain wouldn’t make a big difference to a mighty ocean, but it makes a difference to an oasis in desert. The alumni of the oasis of Humphrey School do greater things that we wouldn’t have otherwise imagined. Therefore, when the students applied for the award, just think about the “impartial” message of Ed’s public service and how the applicants could make a small difference in those who are less fortunate than them despite their religion, race, ethnicity, or language.

Sarah Lynch works for the Energy Department's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office, managing its online presence as well as consumer awareness campaigns. She graduated from the Humphrey School in 2001 and lives in Washington, D.C.

Patrick Mendis is a former American diplomat, military professor, and academic administrator. He has lived, traveled, and worked in more than 75 countries and visited all 50 states. He graduated from the Humphrey School in 1986 and was a recipient of the Hubert H. Humphrey Alumni Leadership Award. He lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his family.