Curtis W. Tarr, Selective Service chief who ran the Vietnam War draft lottery, dies at 88


In 1972, Selective Service chief Curtis W. Tarr spins a drum containing capsules with birth dates and orders of assignments at the beginning of the fourth annual lottery for the military draft. (Charles W. Harrity/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
June 26, 2013

Curtis W. Tarr, the former head of the Selective Service System who oversaw the lottery for the draft during the Vietnam War, died June 21 at his home in Walnut Creek, Calif. He was 88.

The cause was pneumonia, said his daughter, Pam Tarr.

President Richard Nixon appointed Mr. Tarr as director of the Selective Service System in 1970. The nation had held its first lottery drawing for the draft in December 1969, and Mr. Tarr was responsible for implementing the changes, said Dick Flahavan, spokesman for the Selective Service. Before the lottery, local draft boards had control over who was called and who was not.

“The lottery system took the local personalities out of the system,” Flahavan said, adding that it was “much fairer, much more objective, more efficient.”

Each day of the year was assigned a randomly drawn number from 1 to 365. So, for example, May 1 might be assigned No. 100, and men with May 1 birthdays would be called after those with birthdays assigned the numbers one to 99.

“It obviously was a big deal for young men who were of the appropriate age,” Flahavan said. “And lotteries and birth dates meant a lot in those days and were tracked on all the campuses and so on.”

The lottery was introduced as the war was winding down. In 1970, the draft called men with numbers through 195. The next year, it called up to 125, and by 1972, the military’s needs were being satisfied with volunteers, he said.

Mr. Tarr led the Selective Service until May 1972 and then served a year as undersecretary of state for security assistance, a position that gave him responsibility for military programs with other nations. He left government service in 1973 and went on to hold management roles at tractor manufacturer Deere & Co., Cornell University and the automotive castings manufacturer Intermet Corp.

Pam Tarr said people still approach her to show her their draft cards with her father’s signature on it. “I don’t think he would say it was one of his great achievements; it was one of his greatest responsibilities,” she said. “He was a very principled man, and in every position he had, he wanted to do what was right.”

Curtis William Tarr was born Sept. 18, 1924, in Stockton, Calif., and served with the Army in Europe during World War II. He received a bachelor’s degree at Stanford University, a master’s degree in business administration at Harvard University and a doctorate in American history at Stanford University. His dissertation focused on the armed services.

Mr. Tarr was named president of Lawrence College in Appleton, Wis., in 1963 and was instrumental in its merger with Milwaukee-Downer College, which formed Lawrence University. He also established the university’s first overseas program, in Germany.

While at Lawrence, Mr. Tarr was appointed by Wisconsin Gov. Warren Knowles (R) to lead a task force looking at the relationship between the state and local governments. That gained him notice in the Republican Party and eventually led to an appointment at the Pentagon. From there, he was named head of the Selective Service.

— Associated Press

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