Willard Wirtz, 98

Willard Wirtz, labor secretary for JFK and LBJ, dies at 98

By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 25, 2010

Willard Wirtz, a lawyer and longtime public servant who was secretary of labor under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, died April 24 at an assisted living facility in Washington. He had been in failing health, but the cause of death was not immediately known.

He was 98 and was the last survivor of the Kennedy Cabinet.

Regarded by admirers as an icon of liberalism, Mr. Wirtz took to heart the plight of those without work. "Maybe I do get emotional about the unemployment problem," he told an interviewer in 1962.

But, he said, "I think the situation is so deplorable in human terms that it warrants an indignant intolerance of any explanation for it in terms of any kind of economic analysis."

A gifted mediator, he was credited with a behind-the-scenes role in resolving many thorny labor-management disputes.

After serving as under secretary of labor at the start of the Kennedy administration, he was named to the top post in 1962 when Kennedy nominated then-Secretary Arthur Goldberg to the Supreme Court.

During his career at the Labor Department, Mr. Wirtz was credited with forestalling or ending several high-profile strikes, including a Longshoremen's strike and another affecting New York's newspapers.

In the Cabinet, Mr. Wirtz helped create programs and policies of Johnson's "War on Poverty." He was a vigorous advocate of retraining for workers to cut unemployment. He sought legislation to root out causes of joblessness and championed remedial education for school dropouts.

Johnson relied on him heavily, and the two were close at first. But after a time, Mr. Wirtz sent a note to Johnson expressing misgivings over the Vietnam war.

"That was the end of the close relationship," Mr. Wirtz told National Public Radio in 2008. But he remained in the Cabinet.

"I think it was a matter of loyalty," a former aide, Frank Erwin, said Saturday. He said the situation was described in Mr. Wirtz's 2008 memoir, "In the Rear View Mirror."

In the NPR interview, Mr. Wirtz also spoke of a feeling that "it would have been silly for a secretary of labor to resign over a Vietnam War position, because he wouldn't really know about it. . . . I didn't really know firsthand anything more than I learned from the newspapers."

William Willard Wirtz was born March 14, 1912, in DeKalb Ill., attended Beloit College in Wisconsin and graduated in 1937 from Harvard Law School. He was on the faculties of the University of Iowa and Northwestern University law schools before serving during World War II with the War Labor Board. In 1946, he chaired the National Wage Stabilization Board. He then taught at Northwestern again and, a skillful writer, prepared speeches for Adlai Stevenson during the Democrat's presidential campaigns.

In the 1960s, as urban tensions grew, Mr. Wirtz met regularly with black leaders in the District, and supplied federal money for a jobs program in the city. In later years, he headed the District's public employee relations board.

Mr. Wirtz's wife, Jane, died in 2002. Survivors include two sons, Philip of Washington and Richard of Knoxville, Tenn.; two sisters, Kathryn Gude and Fran Weeks; and three grandchildren.

Mr. Wirtz abandoned a flourishing Chicago law practice to join the Kennedy administration in 1961. Although federal salaries "were terrible," he told NPR, he "never thought of it as a sacrifice."

On Nov. 22, 1963, the day Kennedy was shot, Mr. Wirtz was flying to Tokyo with other officials. First reports on their plane were uncertain. "The way I knew what happened," Mr. Wirtz told NPR, "was when the wing of that plane dipped and we started back."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company