January 2, 2009 / 12:33 AM / 11 years ago

Claiborne Pell, senator behind college grants, dies

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Claiborne Pell, an aristocratic Rhode Islander who spent 36 years in the U.S. Senate and was best known for championing better education for the poor, died Thursday, the Providence Journal reported.

Claiborne Pell, who spent 36 years in the U.S. Senate and was best known for championing better education for the poor, in an undated photo. REUTERS/Handout

Pell, who was 90, served as a Democratic senator from Rhode Island from 1961 to 1997. He was the architect of a grant program that bears his name and has helped tens of millions of Americas attend college.

Pell died peacefully at his home surrounded by family shortly after midnight Thursday after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease, the Journal reported.

Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who served in the Senate with Pell, called him “one of our nation’s most important voices in foreign policy for over 30 years.”

“Claiborne Pell was a man of extraordinary integrity, grace and decency,” Biden said in a statement.

“Because of Senator Pell and the Pell Grant, the doors of college have been opened to millions of Americans — and will continue to be opened to millions more. That is a legacy that will live on for generations to come.”

The Providence Journal cited a statement released by Pell’s family as saying he defined his job in the Senate in seven words: “Translate ideas into actions and help people.”

Pell spent his years in the Senate focused on education, the humanities, diplomacy and the arts and for the latter part of his Senate career served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The son of a diplomat with an old-school demeanor, Pell never lost an election in a largely blue-collar state.

A self-effacing man, Pell compiled an impressive record in the Senate, from college grants for the poor early in his career to the ratification of nuclear arms treaties near its end.

“I always try to let the other fellow have my way,” was one of many vintage “Pellisms” famous among Rhode Island reporters and political operatives, the Journal said.

Writing by Todd Eastham, editing by Bill Trott

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