Harris L. Wofford, who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., helped create the Peace Corps and ran the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), died yesterday at the age of 92.
He was an advisor to President John F. Kennedy on civil rights and a freshman senator named Barack Obama was assigned his old desk on the Senate floor. A 2014 profile about him in The New Republic was headlined “The Man Who Was Everywhere.”
“Harris was one of a kind; a leader and inspiration for all ages. His humanity, generosity of spirit and humor made him a joy to be near,” said Diana Aviv, former CEO of Independent Sector.
Wofford served on the boards of America’s Promise Alliance, Youth Service America, Opportunity Nation and the Points of Light Foundation, among other nonprofits. He also was a senior fellow at the Case Foundation in Washington, D.C.
Points of Light Board Chairman Neil M. Bush, the son of former President George H.W. Bush, described Wofford as a “hero of the national service movement, a beautiful human being who will be missed, and one who left the world a much better place.”
Wofford, a liberal Democrat, and Bush, a conservative Republican, became close friends, “united in their commitment to lifting others,” Bush said. “Both men had impressive resumes. But what made them special were deeply rooted values, loving hearts, human qualities that shown through like brilliant points of light,” he said.
Wofford was recognized in The NonProfit Times Power & Influence Top 50 in 2002, the same year he received the John W. Gardner Leadership Award. In 2013, he received the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian award in the U.S., behind only the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Harris Llewellyn Wofford, Jr. was born on April 9, 1926. He was married to Clare Lindgren for 48 years, until her death in 1996. Almost three years ago, he penned a New York Times op-ed about remarrying at the age of 90, to a man 50 years his junior.
Wofford served in the Air Force during World War II and graduated from the University of Chicago in 1948. He was the first white student to enroll in Howard University School of Law, a historically black college in Washington, D.C., in a half-century, ultimately earning his J.D., and another law degree from Yale Law School in 1954.
Kennedy signed an executive order in March 1961 that created the Peace Corps, with his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, as the organization’s first director. In 1962, Wofford became the Peace Corps’ special representative for Africa and director of its Ethiopia program. He later served as associate director of the Peace Corps.
Wofford was appointed in 1966 to be the first president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury, and then went on to serve as president of Bryn Mawr College from 1970 to 1978. After several years in private practice, he was appointed Secretary of Labor and Industry for Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey and served from 1987-91.
Casey appointed him to the U.S. Senate in April 1991 after the death of Sen. John Heinz. Wofford went on to defeat Dick Thornburgh, a former attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, in a special election later that year for the remainder of the term – the first Democrat to win a Pennsylvania Senate seat in 20 years. He reportedly was a finalist for the vice presidential nomination that ultimately went to Al Gore in 1992. In a bid for a full six-year term in 1994, Wofford narrowly lost to Republican Rick Santorum.
Norman J. Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), recalled Wofford from his time in the Senate and said that he frequently talked to him about health care and national service – subjects that were near and dear to Wofford. “I saw him some, but less frequently, after he lost to Rick Santorum – a change that embodied the directions the two parties were headed: the Democrats toward a sharp focus on achieving the long-time goal, which had been kickstarted by Harris Wofford, toward universal health coverage and care, the Republicans toward a kind of anti-government mindless nihilism. Harris will be sorely missed.”
After leaving the Senate, Wofford led CNCS from 1995 to 2001.
Wofford was the first sitting member of the U.S. Senate to ever visit the offices of the Points of Light Foundation, according to former president and CEO Robert K. Goodwin. “His interest was to learn what we were doing and what he could do to advance the call of service. He also understood the power of partnerships,” he said.
George Romney, a founding director of Points of Light and father of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), long had the idea of bringing all of the U.S. presidents together on the same stage to advance the cause of volunteering, according to Goodwin. Romney believed that would help “depoliticize” the idea that Points of Light was a ‘Republican’ movement and AmeriCorps was a ‘Democratic’ program. “When George advanced the idea to Harris, his response was ‘You get Bush and I’ll get [Former President Bill] Clinton,”’ Goodwin said. That idea turned into the President’s Summit on Volunteering, which took place in Philadelphia in April 1997.
“I loved traveling with Harris, except anyone who did knew they might be responsible for being sure he didn’t leave a coat or briefcase on the plane. And for any meeting that might last over a half hour, you had to be prepared for him to take his shoes off,” Goodwin said. “He was relaxed but totally focused on the topic at hand, exuding a level of commitment and dedication, seldom witnessed,” he said.
“No one did more to advance the cause of National Service than Harris Wofford. His life is a testimony to the power of connection,” Goodwin said. “May his commitment to human empowerment inspire a new generation to lead lives of courage and selflessness in the face of isolation, apathy, and negativity, so evident now in our communal life,” he said.
“Harris was truly a legend who influenced greatly my own career at the Points of Light Foundation. His considerable breadth of experience and historic contributions to society cast a shadow of epic proportion,” said John Schneider, former vice president of marketing at Points of Light. “I was blessed to have known him and to work with him. He will forever be in my memories.”
Scott Beale called Wofford as an inspiring personal hero and founder of the “reverse Peace Corps.” He explained that when Wofford and Shriver were traveling the world to set up the Peace Corps, they met with the president of Niger who suggested their college-educated youth volunteer in America. That led to a program where you men and women from Africa, Asia and Latin America volunteered in the U.S. until Congress cut funding for the program two years later. The idea was dormant until 2006 when Beale launched Atlas Corps.
“While ‘founder of the reverse Peace Corps’ and ‘mentor to Scott Beale’ might not make his tombstone or Wikipedia page, I am personally so grateful to have had him in my life and for the example he set for us all,” he said.
“This is a sad day for the country,” said Arianna Huffington, co-founder of The Huffington Post and political commentator. “Years before he put the health care crisis on the map in his 1991 Senate win, and inspired yet another generation, Harris Wofford had been a lifelong civil rights activist and courageous and passionate campaigner to expand the promise of America to everybody,” she said. “At a time when so many want to narrow that vision, his spirit will be missed. Given his early support for Martin Luther King, whom he marched with in Selma, it’s fitting that he died yesterday.”
Wofford’s tireless commitment to improving the world through acts of service inspired millions, said Natalye Paquin, Points of Light President and CEO. “He was one of the earliest and most steadfast supporters of Points of Light, and we have always been privileged to call him a valued advisor and a friend,” she said. “He believed in service as a uniting force for good, and showed us that every individual has the power to create change. Few individuals in American history have made a greater contribution to the service movement in our country and the world.”