NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) | Claiborne Pell, the quirky blueblood who represented blue-collar Rhode Island in the U.S. Senate for 36 years and was the force behind a grant program that has helped tens of millions of Americans attend college, died Thursday after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 90.
Mr. Pell, a Democrat, died at his Newport home just after midnight, according to his former assistant, Jan Demers.
Mr. Pell was first elected to the Senate in 1960. The skinny son of a New York congressman, Mr. Pell spoke with an aristocratic tone but was an unabashed liberal who spent his political career championing causes to help the less fortunate.
He disclosed that he had Parkinson’s in December 1994 and left office in January 1997 after his sixth term.
“Rhode Island has lost one of its greatest statesmen, one who embodied the highest ideals of public service,” Rep. Jim Langevin, Rhode Island Democrat, said in a statement Thursday. “Senator Pell was a gentleman and champion for those who needed their voices heard, and his work truly made a difference for our state and the nation.”
Quiet, thoughtful and polite to a fault, Mr. Pell seemed out of place in an era of in-your-face, made-for-television politicians. A multimillionaire, he often wore old, ill-fitting suits and sometimes jogged in a tweed coat.
Though criticized by some for his fascination with UFOs and extra sensory perception, he was best remembered for his devotion to education, maritime and foreign affairs issues.
When asked to name his greatest achievement, Mr. Pell always was quick to answer, “Pell Grants.”
Legislation creating the Basic Educational Opportunity Grants passed in 1972, providing direct aid to college students. The awards were renamed Pell Grants in 1980. By the time Mr. Pell retired, they had aided more than 54 million low- and middle-income Americans.
Mr. Pell also shared a strong interest in the arts and was chief Senate sponsor of a 1965 law establishing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Mr. Pell was well-liked among peers from both political parties, who respected his non-confrontational style.
“I believe in letting the other fellow have my way” was a favorite refrain Mr. Pell used to refer to his negotiating skills.
Born in 1918, Mr. Pell came from a political family and was a descendant of early New York landowners who lived among the old-money families in Newport. Five of his family members served in the House or Senate, including great-great-granduncle George M. Dallas, who was a senator from Pennsylvania in the 1830s and vice president under President James K. Polk in the 1840s. His father, Herbert Claiborne Pell, was a one-term representative from New York.
Mr. Pell graduated from Princeton in 1940 and served in the Coast Guard during World War II. He remained in the Coast Guard Reserve until retiring as a captain in 1978.
He participated in the 1945 San Francisco conference that drafted the United Nations charter and was a staunch defender of the institution throughout his life.
He served in the foreign service for seven years, holding diplomatic posts in Czechoslovakia and Italy, then returned to Rhode Island in the 1950s. He was elected to the Senate in 1960 after defeating two former governors in the Democratic primary.
A dove who vigorously opposed the Vietnam War, Mr. Pell in 1987 became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. He was considered a weak chairman, and he lost the job to Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina when Republicans gained a majority in 1994.
Mr. Pell considered retiring in 1990 but was persuaded by party leaders to run. He easily defeated then-U.S. Rep. Claudine Schneider despite making a monumental gaffe during a televised debate in which he was asked to identify a piece of recent legislation he had sponsored to help Rhode Islanders.
“I couldn’t give you a specific answer,” Mr. Pell said. “My memory’s not as good as it should be.”
Mr. Pell was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in December 1994 and disclosed the condition the following spring. He insisted the disease had nothing to do with his retirement.
He and his wife, who married in 1944, had four children. Their daughter Julia died of lung cancer in 2006 at 52.