GUY RAZ, host:
It's All things Considered from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Claiborne Pell, a six-term Democratic U.S. senator from Rhode Island has died at the age of 90. He was the man who created the Pell grant program. It helped tens of millions of Americans attend college. His family noted that Senator Pell defined his job in seven words: "Translate ideas into actions and help people."
Pell won his Senate seat in 1960, and he retired in 1997 after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Scott MacKay is a political analyst at public radio station WRNI, and he joins us from Jamestown, Rhode Island. Scott, what led Senator Pell to start the Pell grant program?
SCOTT MACKAY: Well, Senator Pell was the kind of blue blood from a blue-collar state who believed that social mobility worked through education. And he was a Princeton graduate himself and a well-born man. But he thought that his immigrant state, that if the Portuguese and Italian and Irish immigrant folks would have a shot at higher education, that they too could have a little piece of the American dream. And he really believed that. And he always cared about education.
RAZ: So he was this millionaire - this blue blood, as you say - but seemed to have a kind of common touch.
MACKAY: He did have a common touch. He was an eccentric man, but nonetheless someone who really did care again about the people of Rhode Island. He was a thrifty man such that he would buy his suits from rummage sales. And he wore shirts with cut collars, a Brooks Brothers shirt where he'd turn the collar. I'll never forget his last Senate race in 1990 which I covered. Mary Beth Cahill, who was his campaign manager, said, Senator, do you really want to go out with that shirt on? And he said, oh, Nuala - his wife, who was a charming woman, who survives him - would always say, oh, you look very nice today, Pell. And he really did. He was the kind of person who would just show up at everything. He was probably the only white politician in the old days who could walk through South Providence through a very tough black neighborhood, everybody said hello and came over and shook his hand. And he did this his whole career.
RAZ: And he was almost sort of the last of a generation. I mean...
MACKAY: Yeah, you know, sometimes I thought he should have been a member of the British House of Lords. But on the other hand, he was somebody who understood the interests of his state. And he did a lot for public transportation, Amtrak. And he also understood the environment. And people in New England care a lot about the environment. In Rhode Island there again it's said there he did an awful lot for environmental issues. And he cared about the arts also. The National Endowment for the Arts was one of his pet projects.
RAZ: And he's considered the father of the National Endowment for the Arts.
MACKAY: Certainly he was someone who was very instrumental in arts and he cared about it. And it wasn't just his Newport grandees that he cared about. He was also the kind of person who believed in arts in schools and helping Rhode Island School of Design, for instance, and helping people, believing that arts define us and were something that really made us human, almost. And Senator Pell was always a wonderful supporter of the arts.
RAZ: Well, Scott, thank you so much for your time.
MACKAY: Thank you.
RAZ: Scott MacKay is a political analyst with member station WRNI, and he was speaking about Senator Claiborne Pell. Pell died earlier today after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. He was 90 years old.
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