Claiborne Pell, U.S. Senator

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Claiborne de Borda Pell, II

Birthdate: (90)
Birthplace: New York, New York, United States
Death: January 1, 2009 (90)
At home, Newport, Newport County, Rhode Island, United States (complications of Parkinson's disease)
Immediate Family:

Son of Herbert Claiborne Pell, Jr. and Matilda Olive Bigelow Pell
Husband of Nuala Pell
Father of Herbert Claiborne Pell, III; Julia Lorillard Wampage Smith; <private> Yates (Pell) and <private> Pell
Half brother of Hugh Gladstone Koehler

Occupation: United States Senator
Managed by: James Duane Pell Bishop III
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Claiborne Pell, U.S. Senator

Claiborne de Borda Pell (November 22, 1918 – January 1, 2009) was a United States Senator from Rhode Island, serving six terms from 1961 to 1997, and was best known as the sponsor of the Pell Grant, which provides financial aid funding to U.S. college students. A Democrat, he was that state's longest serving senator.

Early years

Pell attended St. George's School in Newport, Rhode Island and received an A.B. in history from Princeton University in 1940. While at Princeton, he was a member of Colonial Club and played on the rugby team.

Pell enlisted in the United States Coast Guard in 1941, four months before Pearl Harbor. He served as a ship's cook, and eventually earned a commission. During the war he served on North Atlantic convoy duty and in Sicily and Italy. He received the American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European Campaign Medal and World War Two Victory Medal for his service during the Second World War. After the war he remained in the United States Coast Guard Reserve, and eventually retired with the rank of Captain.

From 1945 to 1952, he served in the United States Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer in Czechoslovakia, Italy, and Washington, D.C. He was fluent in French, Italian, and Portuguese. In 1946 Pell received an M.A. in history from Columbia University.

UN Charter-Drafting Conference in San Francisco

Pell was a participant in the 1945 San Francisco conference that drafted the United Nations charter.

Political career

In 1960, Pell won the seat of retiring U.S. Senator Theodore Francis Green after defeating, as an unendorsed outside candidate, two former Governors, Dennis J. Roberts and former U.S. Senator J. Howard McGrath in the Democratic primary.

Pell College Education Grants

Pell was largely responsible for the creation of Pell Grants in 1973, originally known as "Basic Educational Opportunity Grants". The Pell Grants provide financial aid funds to U.S. college students. Pell grants initially provided for grants for prisoners because Pell understood that education while incarcerated resulted in a 65% drop in recidivism rates and that resulted in a safer public. Congress later removed that provision even though no one outside was ever denied a grant because of those given to prisoners. For many years there was more money available than was applied for.

He was the main sponsor of the bill that created the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was active as an advocate for mass transportation initiatives and domestic legislation facilitating and conforming to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

In 1987 he was among those selected for the United Nations Environment Programme's Global 500 Roll of Honour, in the first year that award was established.

He served as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1987-1994.

In 'The Washington Pay-Off; An Insider's View of Corruption in Government' (Copyright 1972; Lyle Stuart, Inc.), author and former lobbyist Robert N. Winter-Berger, wrote about Senator Pell's arrest, during a raid on a New York gay bar, in the early 1960s. In 1993, during the bitter confirmation battle over Roberta Achtenberg, a lesbian, as Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Pell stated that his daughter was a lesbian, and that he hoped that it would not be a barrier to federal employment for her; Achtenberg became the first openly gay person to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Upon his retirement from the Senate, Rhode Island's Newport Bridge was redesignated the "Claiborne Pell Bridge" and the Pell Center of International Relations and Public Policy was established at Salve Regina University, in Newport, Rhode Island, Pell's home town.

Senator Pell also received an Honorary Doctorate from Johnson & Wales University in 1979.

On October 14, 1994, Pell was presented with the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Clinton.

Interest in the paranormal

According to Uri Geller, Pell in the late 1980s took an active interest into Geller's claims of remote viewing. On Geller's personal website he states that he was called by Pell and asked to describe a drawing he was looking at that moment. When Geller answered "a dagger with an ivory handle", Pell replied that he had gotten it correct and he was now convinced that Geller was genuine. Gueller reports that Pell was one of the most "forward-looking" and "open-minded people" he had ever met who was very interested in using psychic powers for peaceful means.

In a 2009 interview with skeptic James Randi, he discusses his experience with Senator Pell who asked him to try and duplicate one of Geller's remote viewing feats. The Senator upon seeing that Randi's drawing matched his own drawing yelled, "I know a trick when I see one and that was not a have the power!"

Family and later years

Claiborne de Borda Pell was the son of former Congressman Herbert Claiborne Pell, Jr.. He was the great-great-grandson of former Congressman John Francis Hamtramck Claiborne, great-great-grandnephew of former Senator and Vice President of the United States George Mifflin Dallas and great-great-great-grandnephew of former Senator and Congressman William Charles Cole Claiborne and of former Congressman Nathaniel Herbert Claiborne.[7] He was also a direct descendant of mathematician John Pell. Pell was one of the heirs to what started out as the Lorillard tobacco fortune, although the family has been out of the Lorillard firm for generations.

Pell married the former Nuala O'Donnell, great-granddaughter of George Huntington Hartford, owner of the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company and granddaughter of Edward V. Hartford, who perfected the automobile shock absorber, and, as such, was one of the heirs to several fortunes. They had four children: Herbert Claiborne Pell III ("Bertie"), Christopher Thomas Hartford Pell ("Toby"), N. Dallas, and Julia Lorillard Wampage Pell.

Although from a wealthy background, Pell was renowned in Rhode Island for his lack of pretension and his frugality.

At his funeral, one grandson recalled that his grandfather "jogged in actual business suits that had been reluctantly retired" and "drove a Chrysler LeBaron convertible, which was outfitted with tattered red upholstery, a roof held together with duct tape...when it finally fell apart, he replaced it with a Dodge Spirit, which he had purchased used from Thrifty Rental Cars."

His grandson continued, "When I was about twelve, my father owned an eight foot orange Zodiac, with flaky wooden floorboards and a six horsepower engine. My father would let me take it out on my own... On several occasions my grandfather would volunteer to join me. He would arrive at the dock, sit down on the wooden floorboards, wearing, of course, a full suit. Together we'd knife thru the moored boats and wave at passing boaters. Inevitably someone would recognize him, usually it would be a guy standing about ten feet above us in a sixty-foot SeaRay or a large sailboat, pointing and remarking, "Hey, it's Senator Pell down there. How you doing, Senator?" Grandpa would smile, wave back, happy as a clam in the smallest boat in the harbor, dressed as a gentleman, spending time with his family."

In his later years, Pell suffered from Parkinson's Disease. Pell died on January 1, 2009. He was 90 years old.


NEWPORT, R.I. – 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 January 1, 2009 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 90.

Pell, a Democrat, died at his Newport home just after midnight, according to his former assistant, Jan Demers.

Pell was first elected to the Senate in 1960. The skinny son of a New York congressman, 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 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, D-R.I., 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."

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, also a Rhode Island Democrat, called Pell "a mentor, example and friend" and "a uniquely beloved Rhode Island politician."

"We will all miss him deeply, and long benefit from the works of his farseeing soul," he said.

Quiet, thoughtful and polite to a fault, 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 his greatest achievement, 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 Pell retired, they had aided more than 54 million low- and middle-income Americans.

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.

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 Pell used to refer to his negotiating skills.

Born in 1918, 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 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.

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.

Despite his peculiarities, he became the most formidable political force in Rhode Island. In his six statewide elections, he received an average 64 percent of the votes.

"I attribute (my popularity) to one reason, and that is I have never critically mentioned my adversary," Pell would say.

The late Republican Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island once said Pell's popularity was due to the state's overwhelmingly Democratic leanings and Pell's honesty and integrity. Voters embraced Pell's quirkiness and, to a certain extent, his distance from common people.

A story from Pell's 1972 Senate campaign was a favorite in Rhode Island and was told often to illustrate his isolation from the average Joe.

Pell was campaigning in Providence when it began raining. Pell, who had a formal evening engagement, had forgotten his galoshes. An aide was dispatched and returned with a pair.

In his very formal manner of speech, Pell asked the aide, "To whom am I indebted for these fine rubbers?"

"I got them at Thom McAn, senator," the aide answered, referring to the budget shoe store chain.

"Well, do tell Mr. McAn that I am much obliged to him," Pell said.

A dove who vigorously opposed the Vietnam War, 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.

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," Pell said. "My memory's not as good as it should be."

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.

"There is a natural time for all life's adventures to come to an end and this period of 36 years would seem to me about the right time for my service in the Senate to end," he said in September 1995.

When attending a July 2006 ceremony in his honor in Newport, Pell did not talk, letting his wife, Nuala, speak on his behalf.

He and his wife, who married in 1944, had four children. Their daughter Julia died of lung cancer in 2006 at age 52.

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Claiborne Pell, U.S. Senator's Timeline

November 22, 1918
New York, New York, United States
Age 25
May 9, 1953
Age 34
January 1, 2009
Age 90
Newport, Newport County, Rhode Island, United States