November 22 marks not only the 5th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but also the birthday of the late Senator Pell. The President was killed on the Senator’s 45th birthday; Friday would be Senator’s Pell’s 95th birthday.
Review: “An Uncommon Man: The Life and Times of Claiborne Pell”, By G. Wayne Miller
In his immigrant family, my father was the first to graduate college (Providence College). Throughout the 50’s and 60’s he was active in politics, running for the nomination of lieutenant governor and serving as Assistant Director of Correctional Services at times during those years. In addition, during the Eisenhower administration he headed the “Baseball for Europe” program, procuring the baseball legend Yogi Bera as America’s representative. Its purpose was to foster good relations between Europe and the US in the years following WWII. For this work he was twice awarded the “Star of Solidarity” by the Italian government.
As a result of these activities, he came to know Claiborne Pell personally and had great respect for him. I was a youngster at the time with no awareness of government business, but I did sense that in my family Sen. Pell was a sort of hero. For all I knew, he might have been in the same category as Superman, whom my sister and I eagerly watched on our 50’s Zenith TV. Although at that age I was oblivious of Sen. Pell’s identity or accomplishments, I did sense that he was revered on a level far above all other politicians at that time. Actually, even then I knew that to even associate the word politician with him was inappropriate, almost a diminishment of his stature. Now I realize what my father knew at that time — Pell was a true statesman, a leader without peer.
I have just recently completed G Wayne Miller’s “An Uncommon Man: The Life and Times of Claiborne Pell” and now better understand why my father held Sen. Pell in such high esteem. I have been aware of his sponsoring the Pell Grants to better enable children of lower and middle-class families to attend college, a hard-earned achievement my father knew too well from his own experience. But I knew little of Pell’s other significant contributions including his efforts to create the National Endowment for the Arts as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities. Nor was I much aware of his push for high speed rail or the Seabed Treaty or the Clean Air and Water Act. Having now read Mr. Miller’s book I am much more cognizant of why my Dad admired Pell so.
He was a gentleman, well-bred in every sense of the word, civil and respectful in all his dealings, well-traveled, well-informed, well-educated. From the book I was amazed to learn that his reading list between the ages of 6-8 included “The Story of Mankind” and “The Iliad”, as well as some of Dickens’ novels. Not only did his parents ensure that his reading material matched his intellect, but I was so very impressed by their devotion to the development of his character and integrity from the earliest age. The letters between Pell and both his parents reveals a deep and abiding love so strong that it is almost palpable — beautiful, tender, and precious. These letters speak volumes.
Despite his wealth and aristocratic background, he had developed a strong sense of social justice; and from his position early in his career as vice-consul at the American Embassy in Czechoslovakia, where he had to determine whether or not foreigners applying for visas received them, he became very interested in the plight of the immigrant. This lasted a lifetime. Rhode Islanders were wise to recognize his worth and uniqueness early in his political career and to retain him from l96l-l997. He was not known for his eloquence, but for his tireless efforts devoted to what mattered most: civil rights, education and housing, the minimum wage, and job retraining. Both white and blue-collared Rhode Islanders knew he was their champion. As was said of Shakespeare, “He was not of an age, but for all time.”
Donna DeLeo Bruno is a native Bristolian and a retired teacher of writing and literature. She now splits her time between Bristol and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where she gives book reviews at the local library as well as at book clubs and women’s clubs. Some of her most enjoyable and relaxing hours are spent reading a book beneath the shade of a tree at the foot of Walley Street with the sun sparkling its reflection on the water.