EDITORIAL: Harris Wofford brought distinction to U.S., Pa.
He wasn’t born in Pennsylvania, nor did his life end here.
But American statesman, educator and civil rights activist Harris Wofford, who died last week at age 92, spent a good deal of his remarkable public life in the Keystone State and brought no small degree of honor to it.
His decades of public service seem more the stuff of a novel than a mortal life. A 2014 profile of Wofford in The New Republic was titled “The Man Who Was Everywhere.” That’s not far off the mark.
From travels in India and study of Mohandas Gandhi, to meetings with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to campaign-altering adviser to John F. Kennedy, to early endorser of Barack Obama, Wofford seemed always to be not only a part of history, but on the right side of it.
Wofford’s long career included serving as president of Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia and, perhaps his most visible role, U.S. senator for Pennsylvania from 1991-95.
But Wofford’s influence spread beyond the offices he held.
As a campaign aid to Kennedy, Wofford helped convince the Democratic candidate to phone King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, while King was imprisoned in Georgia late in the 1960 campaign. News of the call tilted the African-American vote and, with it, the election to Kennedy over Republican candidate Richard Nixon.
Wofford’s advice reflected not political cunning, but sincere solidarity.
His travels in India and Pakistan contributed not only to the publication of the 1951 book “India Afire,” but to a lifetime of civil rights activism. He not only worked with King but during the 1950s served as a counsel to the United States Civil Rights Commission.
As special assistant to Kennedy, he helped Sargent Shriver create the Peace Corps. More than three decades later, while in the Senate, he endorsed the National and Community Service Act of 1993, which created AmeriCorps (as well as the Senior Corps and the Learn and Serve America program).
After losing a reelection in 1994 to young Republican challenger Rick Santorum, Wofford was tapped by President Bill Clinton to run the federal agency overseeing AmeriCorps and related volunteer programs. From this seat, Wofford helped establish America’s Promise — the Alliance for Youth, a consortium of nonprofits, community groups, businesses and other agencies dedicated to providing opportunities for the nation’s youth. It’s no wonder the New York Times referred to him as “America’s volunteer in chief.”
It was also during those years that Wofford was instrumental in redefining the national holiday honoring the birth of King as a national day of service.
The fact that Wofford died on that very holiday was not lost on those honoring his memory.
“It’s only fitting that Harris passed away on the national day of service he helped to bring into existence,” said Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey.
There are many other chapters in the Wofford narrative: stints as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Labor and Industry, and, more briefly, chairman of the state’s Democratic Party; tireless efforts on behalf of service organizations including the Points of Light Foundation and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Non-Violent Social Change; a Presidential Citizens Medal among other notable awards; early champion of presidential candidate Obama, whom, Wofford said, “picked up the torch” of civil rights leaders King, JFK and his brother Robert Kennedy.
And a surprising coda: In 2016, Wofford, widowed for 20 years after the death his wife, Clare, married his longtime companion Matthew Charlton, a man 50 years his junior. “(M)y life (was) a story of two great loves,” he wrote in a New York Times column announcing the union.
“He was really blessed to have such a long and full and interesting and happy life,” his son Daniel Wofford told the Associated Press last week.
Could there be a better epitaph than that?