- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 22, 2001

The man President Bush picked to join his Cabinet as head of the new White House Office of Homeland Security is one of the Republican Party's most popular and respected officeholders.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, 56, a broad shouldered, 6-foot, 3-inch, blue-collar product of Erie in the state's "Steel Valley" has impressed voters of both parties. He's a two-term governor who is said to be a pragmatist and strategist with a gift for building bipartisan support to get things done.

Mr. Ridge is a personal friend of the president's, and at one point, Mr. Bush seriously considered naming him as his running mate. Now he's "the individual" Mr. Bush says he wants "to be able to call" in the event of a terrorist attack. He said Mr. Ridge can be trusted to see that, "we've got it all tied together, [that] we know what the states are going to do and the cities are going to do, and what needs to be [done] from the standpoint of our health agencies."

Linda Bebko-Jones, a Democratic member of the state General Assembly, told reporters last year that Mr. Ridge "knows what he wants and plans very carefully."

"He is very personable, very popular," she said.

The governor's close personal friend, Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, told a USA TODAY reporter, "I'd walk on hot coals for Tom Ridge. He's one of the finest men I have ever known."

And Trent Lott, leader of the Republican minority in the U.S. Senate, told a TV audience that Mr. Ridge has been "a great governor of a key state. … "

"This is a very impressive man," he said.

The Economist magazine has reported Mr. Ridge is "tough as old boots on crime." It's a much-admired attribute in crime-riddled Philadelphia and other parts of the state. Indeed, the Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pa., reported last year: "Finding naysayers [about Mr. Ridge] in this far-off corner of the state is tough."

Nonetheless, in his six years in the U.S. House and later as governor, Mr. Ridge has accumulated critics. A centrist, he has distressed his party's conservatives by siding with pro-choice advocates. And as governor, he has distressed Democrats by cutting Medicaid.

But the new general of homeland defenses has a background that impresses almost everyone. It's the stuff of soap operas.

Mr. Ridge was born in Munhall, Pa., on Aug. 26, 1945, the year World War II ended. His father, a Democrat, was a traveling salesman for the Armour Meat Co. His mother, Laura, was a homemaker who eventually became a Republican committeewoman.

The family wasn't well off. For a time, the Ridges lived in public housing. Still, the young Mr. Ridge went to Catholic schools in Erie, where the family moved. A top student, he won a scholarship to Harvard, graduated with honors and entered law school. During his first year there, he received his draft notice.

Rejecting the chance to take officers' training, he enlisted in the Army and served as an infantryman, sloshing though Vietnam's booby-trapped paddies and dank jungles. "I was the only guy in my unit with a college degree," Mr. Ridge has said.

Mr. Ridge earned his combat infantry badge, rose to the rank of sergeant and won several commendations, including the Bronze Star for valor. He didn't emerge unscathed. The noise of combat worsened a hearing impairment he had been born with. He now wears a hearing aid.

While Mr. Ridge was serving overseas, the girl he had intended to wed married another, went through a divorce in Pittsburgh, and ultimately returned to Erie, where she and the returned veteran rekindled their romance.

Michele Ridge is now the mother of the couple's two children and keeper of their three dogs. She is also the former executive director of the Erie County, Pa., public library system.

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