Former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford died Monday, leaving behind the legacy of a man whose passion for doing the right thing stood out.
You can read his New York Times obituary here and his Washington Post obituary here. He accomplished a lot of little things that made a difference. From his youth, Wofford focused on changing the world, instead of only his narrow little corner of it.
For example, according to the Post obituary, he arranged for Martin Luther King and his wife, Coretta, to visit India and meet Mohandas Gandhi’s disciples. The visit rounded out King’s view of using non-violent means to produce social change.
That Wofford died Monday, Martin Luther King Day, carries a certain poetry.
In an interview this morning, Tim McGrath, who ran Wofford’s 16-county northeast Pennsylvania office, remembered his former boss.
He told a story of the day he had to substitute for Wofford as Wilkes-Barre and state officials co-named Wilkes-Barre Boulevard as Martin Luther King Boulevard. That was June 28, 1994, according to newspaper stories. Wofford had to stay in Washington for Senate votes.
McGrath feared dedication ceremony attendees might resent seeing him instead of Wofford.
He expressed his concern over the phone to Wofford, who told McGrath the story of leaving a contentious NAACP meeting with his wife and Dr. and Mrs. King.
As the Kings and Woffords drove away from the meeting, Mrs. King told Mrs. Wofford she had regular nightmares “that they’re going to take Martin away from me.”
Dr. King heard his wife and said “I didn’t ask for this, but it’s my duty.”
A month later, he was shot dead in Memphis.
McGrath went to the dedication ceremony, which came off without a hitch.
If you read the Washington Post obituary, there’s a great story about Wofford suggesting a way John F. Kennedy could help get Dr. King out of jail just before the 1960 presidential election, a move that had a deep effect on black voters.
That was less than 10 days after Kennedy swung through Pottsville, Hazleton, Wilkes-Barre, Pittston and Scranton in that legendary NEPA campaign visit, by the way.
Wofford had a significant Scranton tie of his own. After Republican U.S. Sen. John Heinz died in an April 4, 1991, plane crash, the job of replacing him fell to Gov. Robert P. Casey. Casey asked former Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II, U.S. Rep. John Murtha of Johnstown and former Philadelphia Mayor Bill Green, but they declined.
Casey even traveled secretly to Detroit to woo Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, an Allentown native. Iacocca said no, too.
Casey wound up picking Wofford, who was his secretary of labor and industry. Wofford had to face election in November 1991 and ran against a powerful Republican, ex-governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh.
Against forecasters’ expectations, Wofford beat Thornburgh and served out the last two years of Heinz’s term. Wofford lost his 1994 re-election bid to Rep. Rick Santorum, whose political career took off from there and ended in 2006 when another Bob Casey, the governor’s son, beat him.
McGrath, who had worked on Gov. Casey’s 1990 re-election campaign, was recruited to work on Wofford’s campaign, a job he took with the proviso that Wofford would hire him for his Senate staff if he won.
“He was wonderful to work for,” said McGrath, who now manages the Viewmont Mall. “Very caring. I had 16 counties under my purview. He said go out and focus on constituent service, see what the people need and what they wanted, to be his eyes and ears.”
“Just a dear man, someone who cared,” McGrath said.