Friday, January 02, 2009

Man Crush of the Year

Claiborne Pell, the quirky, patrician former senator from Rhode Island who created the college grant program that bears his name and wrote the legislation that established the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, died just after midnight Thursday at his Newport, R.I., home. He was 90.…

Mr. Pell was best known for devising legislation that created the program that has dispensed grants to tens of millions of poor and middle-class college students.

He often remarked that he had been motivated to help students meet the high cost of a college education because the G.I. Bill of Rights — the program of federal educational grants to returning service members after World War II — had meant so much to him personally. The fact was that with Mr. Pell’s vast family wealth, derived from an 18th-century royal charter of land from King George III of England, he could have purchased some of the educational institutions they attended, let alone paid their tuition bills.

Mr. Pell, whose ancestors were the original lords of the manor in Pelham Manor, N.Y., lived among the old-money families in Newport. Five of his relatives have been elected to either the House or the Senate, including his father, a one-term representative from Manhattan’s old Silk Stocking District.

After winning his first Senate term in 1960, Mr. Pell, a Princeton graduate, sponsored the preparation of a large two-volume statistical report in 1963 that became the basis of the bill creating the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, or BEOG, which provided financial aid for the needy to attend college.

Asked in an interview in 1996 how the programs came to be known as the Pell Grants, he wisecracked: “Because there was no Senator Beog!” In fact, the name was officially changed to Pell Grants in 1980 by his admiring colleagues in Congress.

As a former university admissions officer for, both, a historically black institution and a historically white one, my heart is broken. I know how hard it was for poor and first-generation college students to scrape together the thousands of dollars needed to enroll in the colleges and universities of their choice. I know what a waste it was when extremely bright and talented students didn't have the money needed to pursue opportunities their intellect and their industry made available to them. The Pell Grant program kept that waste to a minimum, which is why Claiborne Pell has been a career-long man crush of mine and why my heart is broken.

Why do the good ones always die so young? Okay, he wasn't young objectively speaking, but given the number of lives he affected, he should have been allowed to live as long as he wanted. By that standard, his life span doesn't seem long enough for me. I hope 90 was good enough for him.


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