There, Specter learned tolerance and tenacity, skills they said he honed as he crossed party lines and served 30 years in the U.S. Senate, longer than anyone from his adopted home state of Pennsylvania. Specter's funeral was held Tuesday, two days after he died at his Philadelphia home following a third bout with cancer. He was 82.
"There are some things that even the most robust human spirit can't conquer," former Gov. Ed Rendell said, choking up, as he spoke at a service that drew Vice President Joe Biden, two other Pennsylvania governors and scores of political luminaries.
"I've never seen as much undaunted courage as Arlen had—both physically and politically. He believed he could change the world, if he just worked hard enough at it," Biden told hundreds of mourners gathered at Har Zion Temple in Narberth, a Philadelphia suburb.
Shanin Specter, a prominent Philadelphia lawyer, compared his father to the fictional film character Forrest Gump, given his proximity to so many seminal events in modern American history.
Specter served as counsel to the Warren Commission investigating President John F. Kennedy's assassination. He won his Senate seat in the Reagan landslide of 1980 and, as one of the Senate's sharpest legal minds, took part in 14 Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
He grilled Anita Hill when the law professor raised sexual harassment complaints against Clarence Thomas after he was nominated to the Supreme Court. That cost him some of the support he enjoyed from female voters, but he felt it was the right thing to do, Rendell recalled.
Specter lost his seat in 2010, after crossing party lines to vote for President Barack Obama's stimulus package and later rejoining the Democratic Party.
"In a dark time for our nation, he was willing to lose his seat to cast a decisive vote," said Shanin Specter, whose remarks capped about 90 minutes of tributes.
Specter switched parties twice, but mostly served as a Republican.
"He really set the standard for working across party lines, and we're going to miss that," said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat embraced by Specter when he arrived in Washington.
Specter's influence on law, medicine, politics, Judaism and other aspects of life was clear from the diverse, bipartisan and powerful crowd of mourners, including Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Guttman, and federal judges whose careers Specter had backed.
U.S. District Judge Jan DuBois, a longtime friend, recalled how Specter approached everything in life "with intensity, determination and grit," managing to teach one last law class on Oct. 4 at Penn, even as the non-Hodgkin lymphoma diagnosed in August advanced.
Specter loved his daily squash game, a martini and steak at dinner, and Frank Sinatra, whose classic "My Way" played as his flag-draped coffin was carried out by pallbearers including Republican U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan and longtime Philadelphia litigator Richard Sprague.
Specter had fought two earlier bouts with Hodgkin lymphoma, and overcame a brain tumor and cardiac arrest following bypass surgery. His greatest legacy, his friends said, may be the $10 million in federal money he steered into cancer research.
Two of Specter's granddaughters also spoke Tuesday, including Silvi Specter, a Penn freshman who drew applause when she said she hopes to follow her grandfather into law and the U.S. Senate—before becoming president.
Specter's survivors also include his wife, Joan, son Steve and three other granddaughters.