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The night before stroke hit, Kirk enjoyed beer, cheeseburger and banter

DemocrAlexi Giannoulias (left) Mark Kirk (right) enjoy beer cheeesburger  Billy's Goat's Tavern 2010 after Kirk's electiU.S. Senate. File phoby

Democrat Alexi Giannoulias (left) and Mark Kirk (right) enjoy a beer and cheeesburger at Billy's Goat's Tavern in 2010 after Kirk's election to the U.S. Senate. File photo by Scott Stewart/Sun-Times

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Updated: February 25, 2012 8:19AM

The night before he started experiencing stroke symptoms, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) seemed happy and at ease, enjoying conversation, Miller Lite and a cheeseburger at the Billy Goat Tavern on Lower Michigan.

He actually seemed to be relieved to be out of his car after a snail-paced six-hour drive through snowy interstates from Bloomington to Chicago.

He arrived to cheers from staffers and friends of his out-going press spokesman Lance Trover, who colleagues were toasting as Trover prepares to take a position with the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Kirk had been touring central and southern Illinois and before that had been visiting Poland with Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Chicago).

The notoriously health-conscious Kirk – who explains his soups and salads for lunch by saying he has to keep to military weight for his occasional weekends as a Naval Reserve Intelligence officer, said he had not been inundated with butter- and sour cream-laden Polish specialties during his visit there and that’s why he was allowing himself a cheeseburger at the Billy Goat Friday night.

“At every stop they had been serving us veal and venison … high-end food,” Kirk said. “When we got to Krakow, we said, we want pierogies and sausage and the kind of food Polish people in Chicago eat.” That was considered more common food, but their hosts accommodated the request from Kirk and Quigley, Kirk said Friday night between bites of cheeseburger and sips of Miller Lite.

Kirk talked about the ups and downs of Republican presidential candidates in the primary elections and caucuses. Kirk has endorsed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Kirk also talked of his frustrations trying to get his colleagues and the administration fully on board to win visa waivers for Poland.

Almost alone among most European citizens, Polish citizens need a visa to visit the United States. Kirk and Quigley have fought to end that requirement. In his visit to Poland last year and after Kirk and Quigley’s visit this past week, President Barack Obama reiterated his desire to liberalize travel for Poles, but the visa requirement remains.

On the night he won his election, Kirk invited his Democratic rival Alexi Giannoulias to the Billy Goat Tavern for a “beer summit,” which they held to great fanfare the next day.

Friday night, after a few hours’ conversation, Kirk headed out for a snowy drive up to his home in Highland Park. He began experiencing stroke symptoms Saturday.

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