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 (Jan. 1, 2009) after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 90.
Mr. Pell, a Democrat, was first elected to the Senate in 1960. The skinny son of a New York congressman, he 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.
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 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.
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," he would say.