Farewell to a Giant — Senator Pell

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Last week, Claiborne Pell, a six-term US Senator from Rhode Island, passed away at his home in Newport, Rhode Island. Senator Pell was an extraordinary man whose passing signals the end of an era, in many ways.

Most people know Pell because of the namesake grant named after him. According to accounts, the Pell Grant, which was called the BEOG (Basic Educational Opportunity Grant) for several years before being renamed the Pell Grant, was based on a design that came to Senator Pell as he was skiing in the Alps back in the early 1970s. To think that most notable student grant in the US started on a European ski slope is amusing to say the least. Hundreds of thousands of students have benefited from the Pell Grant, and if I mention the Pell Grant in my travels around the world, people usually understand what I’m talking about.

Senator Pell served in the Senate from 1961 until his retirement in 1997. He was of a pedigree background, with father, grandfather and other family members serving in the US Congress before him. He was a great-great-grandnephew of Vice President of the United States George Mifflin Dallas.

Senator Pell is part of an almost lost legacy of the wealthy who understood that they owed a great debt to society for their fortune. Through six senate terms, the Senator from Rhode Island worked to make government serve the needs of those who could benefit from such support. He also believed in serving the arts community, and wrote the legislation for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The “era” that has somewhat ended with his passing is that of fair conversation in Washington, DC. Back in the 60s and 70s, Senators and House members from both parties had a much less intolerant relationship than today and worked together to write legislation to help the nation. Republicans and Democrats rarely agreed fully on anything, but there was a gentlemanship about the institution of Congress that has declined significantly over time. When people like Senator Pell, Bob Dole, and other public servants left the Capitol, a new law of conduct swept in to Washington which has not served the country well.

I was fortunate to cross paths with Senator Pell several times in my relatively brief time living in the US. When I was at the College Board in the late 1990s, Larry Gladieux, my boss, and I staged the 25th Anniversary Pell Grant Conference on Capitol Hill. It was quite an event, and one that participants will forever forget. We held a special dinner celebration on the first evening of the conference in the historic Cannon Caucus Room for the Senator and his wife, Nuala. Special attendees included Chris Dodd, Dick Riley, Tom Eagleton, Pat Williams, Jack Reed, and Jim Jeffords, among others. The Senator had retired earlier that year and was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. His body was frail and voice weak. After several speeches by dignitaries and former Pell Grant recipients, the Senator stepped up, slowly, to the microphone, and, in barely a whisper, said: “This will probably be the last time I’ll be in this room.” The room was still, with nary a dry eye in the house.

In 2001, I joined the Council for Opportunity in Education in Washington. At the time COE had a skeletal research center called the Center for the Study of Educational Opportunity. Part of my job as VP of research and development at COE was to further develop the center. Working with David Evans, former legislative director for the Senator, we were able to get the Senator to agree to have his name on the center, which is now known as The Pell Institute for the Study of Educational Opportunity. A research center about educational opportunity—aptly named.

In summer of 2002, I had the fortune to visit the Senator and his wife at their Newport, RI home. This was a casual visit to let them know the goings on at The Pell Institute. The Pells are very wealthy people. They own a beautiful piece of land—a peninsula, right down the street from where Doris Duke, the Vanderbilts, the Astors, and the infamous Von Bulows lived during the gilded age of Newport. However, the Pell house was remarkably very modest, outside of their million-dollar view of the bay. The house was an example of the way the Senator lived. Modestly. Claiborne and Nuala were noted to be frugal people and were certainly not opulent in comparison to their neighbors. At his funeral a few days ago, Nicholas Pell, Pell’s grandson, said that his grandfather “jogged in actual business suits that had been reluctantly retired.”

After the announcement of Senator Pell’s passing, Vice President-Elect Joe Biden, in a statement, said that, because of Senator Pell, “the doors of college have been opened to millions of Americans — and will continue to be opened to millions more. That is a legacy that will live on for generations to come.”

On Tuesday, January 27th, as part of our National Capitol Summit on Education and the New Administration in Washington, DC, we will be hosting a special reception in honor and celebration of Senator Claiborne de Borda Pell. To learn more, visit our website at educationalpolicy.org. We hope you can join us for this special event.

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