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Former R.I. Senator Claiborne Pell, 90; Sponsored Grant Program

Sen. Claiborne Pell in September of 1995.
Sen. Claiborne Pell in September of 1995. (Bill Powers - Reuters)
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"I would have preferred that we have first crack at it," Sen. Pell said in an interview with the New Republic, "but I didn't make an issue of it."

In 1993, amid a debate over the nomination of Roberta Achtenberg, who was gay, to be an assistant secretary in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Sen. Pell impressed his colleagues when he took to the Senate floor to announce that one of his daughters, Julia L. W. Pell, was gay.

"I would not want to see her barred from a government job because of her orientation," he said.

Claiborne DeBorda Pell was born in New York on Nov. 22, 1918. The family had lived in New York since colonial times, and its holdings once embraced much of Westchester County and the Bronx. Among his ancestors was the founder of the Lorillard Tobacco Co. Five of his forebears, including his father, Herbert Claiborne Pell, served in Congress. His father went on to be U.S. minister to Portugal and then Hungary during the presidency of his friend President Franklin D. Roosevelt. When Claiborne Pell was 9, the family moved to Rhode Island and settled in Newport.

Sen. Pell graduated from Princeton University and received a master's degree in history from Columbia University in 1946. During World War II, he served in the Coast Guard in the Atlantic. After the war, he joined the Foreign Service. His positions abroad included a period in Genoa, Italy, where he was a consular officer. His foreign languages included French, Italian and Portuguese.

He participated in the 1945 San Francisco conference that drafted the United Nations charter and was a staunch defender of the institution throughout his life, often carrying a copy of the charter in his pocket.

In the 1950s, he went into investment banking in Rhode Island. He also became registration chairman of the Democratic National Committee. When he decided to run for the Senate in 1960, he demonstrated his prowess on the hustings by defeating two former governors for the Democratic nomination. He was helped in the general election by his strong ties to John F. Kennedy.

He was one of the principal figures in creating the government-financed college grants originally known as "Basic Educational Opportunity Grants." The awards, renamed Pell Grants in his honor in 1980, are the federal government's largest need-based grants to college students.

His interest in extrasensory perception was such that he had a Senate staffer assigned to the subject. During the 1990 campaign, the aide played speeches by Bush and other high officials on the topic of Iran backward. In doing so, Sen. Pell informed the secretary of defense, the word "Simone" had been discerned, and he described this as "a code word that would not be in the national interest to be known."

"It sounds wacky but there may be some merit to it," Sen. Pell commented. He told an interviewer later that the "Simone" issue "had not been helpful in the campaign."

At the time of his retirement in 1995, Time magazine dubbed him "Senator Oddball," rehashing a 1987 incident when, fearing an extrasensory perception gap with the Soviets, he invited carnival-level spoon bender Uri Geller to Washington to demonstrate his skills. Sen. Pell also attended a symposium on UFO abductions.

His daughter Julia Pell died in 2006. His son Herbert Claiborne Pell III died in 1999.

Survivors include his wife of 64 years, Nuala O'Donnell Pell, a descendant of the founders of the A&P supermarket chain, of Newport; and two children, Christopher T. Pell and Nuala Dallas Yates.

J.Y. Smith, The Washington Post's former obituaries editor and principal writer of this report, died in 2006. Staff writer Patricia Sullivan contributed to this report.

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