Claiborne Pell dies at 90; former Rhode Island senator, creator of Pell Grants

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 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 90.

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

A Democrat, Pell was first elected to the Senate in 1960. He disclosed that he had Parkinson's in December 1995 and left office in January 1997 after his sixth term.

Pell spoke with an aristocratic tone but was an unabashed liberal who spent his political career championing causes to help the less fortunate. A multimillionaire, Pell was well-liked among peers from both political parties, who respected his nonconfrontational style.

Quiet, thoughtful and polite to a fault, Pell seemed out of place in an era of in-your-face, made-for-television politicians. At his best, he was 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.

"He believed strongly that a good education could open infinite doors of opportunity, and he has transformed the lives of millions of young people who have been able to go to college because of the grant that rightly bears his name," said U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

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.

Born Claiborne DeBorda Pell on Nov. 22, 1918, in New York City, Pell came from an old-moneyed, political family and was a descendant of early New York landowners.

His father, Herbert Claiborne Pell, was a one-term representative from New York, one of five family members to have served in the House or Senate.

Pell graduated from Princeton University in 1940, and served in the Coast Guard during World War II. He remained in the Coast Guard Reserve until he retired as a captain in 1978.

Pell earned a master's degree in history at Columbia University after the war.

He served in the U.S. 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.

Pell became the most formidable political force in Rhode Island. In his six elections, he received an average 64% of the votes.

"I attribute [my popularity] to one reason, and that is I have never critically mentioned my adversary," Pell said.

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.

Pell and his wife, Naula, whom he married in 1944, had four children. Their daughter Julia died of lung cancer in 2006 at age 52.