Former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford of Pa. dies at 92

“The key to understanding my dad was that he believed in big ideas. He pursued them, and he pursued them over time.”

  • Dave Davies, WHYY

(Undated) — Harris Wofford, the former Pennsylvania U.S. senator and lifelong advocate for civil rights, social justice and expanded health care, has died in Washington, D.C., due to complications from a fall in his apartment.

He was 92.

Wofford was appointed by Gov. Bob Casey Sr. in 1991 to fill the term of U.S. Sen. John Heinz who was killed in a plane crash.

He then won a come-from-behind special election to keep the seat, defeating former Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh with a campaign that focused on the need for expanded health care.

Wofford, the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Pennsylvania in 20 years, lost the seat to Republican Rick Santorum three years later.

A perpetual activist, Wofford’s short time in elected office was a relatively small part of a career of advocacy and impact.

Born into a wealthy family in Scarsdale, New York, Wofford connected with Martin Luther King Jr. after a fellowship in India studying Gandhi’s principles of nonviolent civil disobedience.

“He was one of the people who helped broaden King’s connection to India and Gandhian principles, and it started a 10-year period where he collaborated with and supported Dr. King’s efforts,” said his son Daniel Wofford in an interview.

Harris Wofford went on to march with King at Selma and later served as President John Kennedy’s special assistant for civil rights.

He helped launch the Peace Corps, spent eight years as president of Bryn Mawr College, and – in the Clinton administration – headed the Corporation for National and Community Service, which runs the AmeriCorps volunteer program.

Dan Wofford said his father had been interested in the idea of voluntary service for decades.

“The key to understanding my dad was that he believed in big ideas,” he said. “He pursued them, and he pursued them over time.”

Cliff Owen / The Associated Press

FILE PHOTO: In this June 21, 2011, file photo, former Sen. Harris Wofford attends the National Building Museum for the Jefferson Awards for Public Service in Washington.

Path to the Senate

Wofford supported Casey for governor of Pennsylvania in 1986, and Casey then appointed him state secretary for Labor and Industry.

When Heinz was killed in a mid-air collision between his plane and a helicopter over a school playground in Lower Merion, Casey appointed Wofford to the Senate.

Though his time in the Senate represented a relatively short span of his career, Dan Wofford said it was important.

“It was a short time, but it gave him a platform and a bully pulpit that he just would not have had,” he said. “It was an opportunity for many, many more people to hear about the things he cared about.”

Bill Clinton was in the White House when Wofford entered the Senate, and Wofford became floor manager for the bill that created AmeriCorps, which he later headed.

Todd Bernstein, the founder of the Martin Luther King Day of Service in Philadelphia, worked with Wofford in the 1980s and ‘90s.

“It’s an understatement to say that he lived a full life. He got everything out of every minute,” Bernstein said in an interview. “Everybody who met Harris, who ended up working with him, really felt kind of a calling to do similar acts of good in society.”

Wofford had three children with his wife, Clare, who died in 1996.

Ten years later, Wofford wrote an essay for the New York Times called “Finding Love Again, This Time with a Man.” He explained that after a happy 48-year marriage to Clare, he’d fallen in love with a Matthew Charlton, 50 years his junior and that they’d decided to marry.

Wofford is survived by Charlton; three children, Daniel of Bryn Mawr, David Wofford of Washington, Susanne Wofford of Manhattan; a brother; a sister; and six grandchildren.

 

WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.

Up Next
Health

FDA, USDA food safety rules have loopholes, report says. The government shutdown only makes them harder to close