HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Former Pennsylvania Sen. Harris Wofford, a longtime civil rights activist who helped persuade John F. Kennedy to make a crucial phone call to the wife of Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1960 presidential campaign, has died. He was 92.
Wofford died in the hospital late Monday night of complications from a fall Saturday in his Washington apartment, his son, Daniel Wofford, said.
Kennedy’s phone call to Coretta Scott King when her husband was locked in a Georgia prison cell in 1960 is credited by some analysts with turning the black vote in his favor and perhaps proving to be the decisive factor in the race against Richard Nixon.
Wofford was an aide to Kennedy during his administration and worked in government and higher education until his upset Senate win in 1991.
Wofford’s activism started in high school. Visits to India left him inspired by Mohandas K. Gandhi, and he marched with King. He became an aide and friend to Democratic presidents over a span of decades.
“He was really blessed to have such a long and full and interesting and happy life,” Daniel Wofford said in an interview Tuesday. “As we realized that we were going to lose him, we began to focus on what an amazing career and father and friend he was to so many.”
As the head of President Bill Clinton’s domestic volunteer program, Wofford was behind the national Martin Luther King Day of Service, which urged Americans to volunteer on the holiday.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., on Tuesday called Wofford “a champion of justice and a man of uncommon courage who dedicated his life to service.”
“It’s only fitting that Harris passed away on the national day of service he helped to bring into existence,” Casey said.
Though perhaps best known for his three years in the Senate, Wofford left a large legacy by shaping government programs behind the scenes.
He advised Kennedy on civil rights, assisted in the establishment of the Peace Corps and headed Clinton’s Corporation for National Service. He also spent years leading higher education institutions and was an early supporter of Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy.
With a philosophy grounded in Kennedy-style liberalism, he promoted an activist government and crafted a career in public service.
“I obviously get a lot of joy out of public service,” Wofford said in a 1995 interview. “I’ve followed ideas in life, and the idea of volunteer service has been with me even before I went to college. It’s very hard to imagine life when you’re not following ideas.”
In 1991, he was appointed by then-Gov. Robert P. Casey to fill the Senate vacancy created by the death of three-term Republican John Heinz in a plane crash.
Six months later, he pulled off a surprise victory in the special election to complete the Senate term. He beat Republican Dick Thornburgh, who was President George H.W. Bush’s attorney general and a popular former Pennsylvania governor, by 10 percentage points.
The special election was considered a dry run for Democratic themes in 1992, when Clinton won the presidency. Wofford campaigned on a pledge to guarantee health care for all Americans, much like Clinton would embrace through his first two years in office.
“If criminals have a right to a lawyer, I think working Americans should have the right to a doctor,” he repeated in his campaign commercials.
As a senator, Wofford pushed Clinton’s doomed health care plan and helped write legislation to create a national service program, which he also ran.
Wofford was known as a bit of an egghead, not a smooth-talking politician. He had difficulty speaking in 30-second sound bites, and many analysts say he preferred the technical nuts and bolts of legislation over ribbon-cutting events and public visits.
In the historic midterm election of 1994, voters soured on Clinton’s early efforts and gave control of both houses of Congress back to Republicans for the first time in decades. In Pennsylvania, Wofford fell in his bid for a full Senate term to Republican Rick Santorum, who campaigned against the kinds of government programs that Wofford had an affinity for.
A year later, Clinton named Wofford to head the Corporation for National Service, which included Clinton’s beloved AmeriCorps.
He later was co-chair of America’s Promise, a group that aims to help young people. In late 2007, Wofford traveled to Iowa to endorse the candidacy of then-Sen. Obama.
According to The New York Times, he told a crowd that he had not felt so inspired “since the days of John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. … Barack Obama picked up the torch that they lit.”
In 2016, Wofford, by then a widower of two decades after his wife of 48 years, Clare, died of leukemia, announced in a column in The New York Times that he had found love with a man 50 years his junior.
“At age 70, I did not imagine that I would fall in love again and remarry. But the past 20 years have made my life a story of two great loves,” he wrote.
Wofford was 75 when he met Matthew Charlton, who was 25, and they married when they were 90 and 40.
Wofford’s activism in civil rights dated to the 1950s.
A close confidante of King, Wofford served as a lawyer for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and was one of the first white graduates of Howard University Law School in 1954.
After working on Kennedy’s presidential campaign, Wofford later served as chairman of Kennedy’s White House Subcabinet Group on Civil Rights and helped R. Sargent Shriver form the Peace Corps in the early 1960s.
At the 1968 Democratic Party convention in Chicago, Wofford was arrested in street protests. Charges of disorderly conduct were later dropped.
The author of four books, Wofford was president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury, which began as an experimental college on Long Island, from 1966 to 1969.
A committee of educators later decided the college was too informal — the school had no departments, no failing grades and no exams — and it was reformed in 1971.
He then led Bryn Mawr, the liberal arts institution outside Philadelphia, from 1970 to 1978. After a decade in private law practice and a stint as Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party chairman, he joined Sen. Casey’s Cabinet in 1987 as secretary of labor and industry.
Born in 1926 in New York City to a successful insurance salesman and a civic activist, Harris Llewellyn Wofford parted ways with his family politically at age 10. For months, he refused to ride in the family car, which sported a bumper sticker for the 1936 Republican presidential candidate, Alf Landon.
Wofford was active during his teenage years in Scarsdale, N.Y., advocating worldwide government as the founder of Student Federalists.
But during a visit to India, he was exposed to Gandhi’s teachings and his enthusiasm was tempered by a realization that more practical solutions would be needed for world problems. He and Clare later wrote “India Afire,” which was published in 1951.
Wofford found that big ideas come to fruition only with persistence and “that’s the key lesson I learned from him,” Daniel Wofford said Tuesday.
He is survived by Charlton and three children, Susanne, Daniel and David, and six grandchildren.
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