He was an old-money millionaire who jogged into his eighth decade among the Gilded Age cottages of Bellevue Avenue, clad in beat-up Bermudas or frayed dress pants and the remains of his Princeton (Class of '40) letter sweater.
He was a champion, as a father of the National Endowmentf or the Arts, of federal patronage of artists -- even after the notorious subsidies to Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano. But privately, Pell abominated their works and was cool toward toward the absractions of modern art. His taste ran to 19th-century American painters as George Caleb Bingham.
He was committed to maritime and foreign affairs issues, strongly in favor of abortion rights, a consistent vote for labor and an ardent advocate of arms control and the rule of law in international affairs. First elected to the Senate in 1960, Sen. Pell was aloof, diffident, courteous and self-effacing. Unfailingly polite, he also had quirks, such as jogging in a tweed coat. One of his favorite sayings was "I always let the other fellow have my way." Eccentric and occasionally absent-minded, he was asked during a 1990 election-year debate what legislation he had sponsored that specifically benefited Rhode Island.
"I couldn't give you a specific answer," he averred in a famous reply. "My memory's not as good as it should be."
He went on to win reelection by a margin of almost 2 to 1.
He often remarked that he had been motivated to help students meet the high cost of a college education because the G.I. Bill of Rights — the program of federal educational grants to returning service members after World War II — had meant so much to him personally. The fact was that with Mr. Pell’s vast family wealth, derived from an 18th-century royal charter of land from King George III of England, he could have purchased some of the educational institutions they attended, let alone paid their tuition bills.
Mr. Pell, whose ancestors were the original lords of the manor in Pelham Manor, N.Y., lived among the old-money families in Newport. Five of his relatives have been elected to either the House or the Senate, including his father, a one-term representative from Manhattan’s old Silk Stocking District.
After winning his first Senate term in 1960, Mr. Pell, a Princeton graduate, sponsored the preparation of a large two-volume statistical report in 1963 that became the basis of the bill creating the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant, or BEOG, which provided financial aid for the needy to attend college.
Asked in an interview in 1996 how the programs came to be known as the Pell Grants, he wisecracked: “Because there was no Senator Beog!” In fact, the name was officially changed to Pell Grants in 1980 by his admiring colleagues in Congress.
Due to high increases in the cost of post-secondary education and slow or no growth in the Pell grant program, the value of Pell grants has eroded significantly over time. In 2005-06, the maximum Pell grant covered one-third of the yearly cost of higher education at a public four-year institution; twenty years ago, it covered 60% of a student's cost of attendance.
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