William Warren Scranton: The reluctant giant
William Warren Scranton walked among the world's giants, but never acted like one.
By the time he died Sunday, Scranton had governed Pennsylvania, modernized its government and helped set up a new state constitution. He ran an underdog and unsuccessful campaign for president, then gave up politics and served four presidents on seven commissions.
He served as a key player in Vice President Gerald Ford's transition to president when President Richard Nixon resigned during one of the most tumultuous moments in the nation's history. He represented the U.S. as ambassador to the United Nations, sat on the boards of major corporations like IBM, Mobil, American Express and the New York Times and never forgot where he still lived.
As often as he was in the midst of historic world events, Scranton also regularly lobbied governors and others to lift up the city that bore his family's name and its surrounding region, and he succeeded more often than not.
He always believed in his home city. He grew up next to its downtown, in his words, "a happy boy," wealthy and privileged, and he understood what that really meant.
"He was very conscious of the fact that his family became wealthy in this region, had an obligation to this region, had an obligation to pay back," said his eldest son, former Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton. "He always had this incredible sense of duty. You did something out of duty, not just out of personal ambition, which isn't to say he wasn't an ambitious man. ... But his ambition, which was strong, never consumed him."
When Scranton died late Sunday afternoon of a cerebral hemorrhage - nine days after his 96th birthday - at Casa Dorinda, a retirement community in Santa Barbara, Calif., he was fulfilling his final ambition, taking care of his ailing wife, Mary, the great love of his life.
Scranton never thought he was all that special. Humility and a calm manner defined him.
"Everybody was more impressed with him than he was," said G. Terry Madonna, Ph.D., the state's premier political analyst.
In a life dominated by the outside world, Scranton never left the region of his roots.
"He held hands with kings, he sat on the boards of some of the most powerful corporations in this country, he advised presidents, but I think the people that inspired him the most were the people here, just genuine inspiration," his son said.
In almost a century of life, William Warren Scranton, who always called himself Bill and never seemed to mind if someone else did, was every bit the giant he never claimed he was.
Though his family lived in Scranton, Scranton was actually born in a cottage in Madison, Conn., where the Scrantons spent summers. He was the fourth and final child and only son of Worthington Scranton, whose ancestors settled Connecticut and Pennsylvania, and Marion Margery Warren Scranton, whose ancestors arrived in this country on the Mayflower in 1620.
The Scranton family grew wealthy from the local iron industry but especially from the sale of the Scranton Gas Works and Water Co. for $25 million the year before the Great Depression began.
The family was long politically active. Two family members were members of Congress in the latter half of the 1800s. His mother, an active suffragette, was a national Republican committeewoman for 23 years and the first female vice chairwoman of the national Republican Party. But early on, Scranton seemed likelier to become a business titan.
After attending Scranton Country Day School, Fessenden Academy in West Newton, Mass., and Hotchkiss in Lakeville, Conn., Scranton earned a degree in history from Yale University. He enrolled in law school, but joined the Air Force seven months before Pearl Harbor and became a pilot. He married Mary Lowe Chamberlain on July 6, 1942.
They would have four children, Susan, William W., Joseph C., and Peter K., who all survive him along with their mother. (Scranton wanted to be cremated and the family plans a memorial service at a time to be announced).
Scranton rose to the rank of captain before leaving the Air Force in October 1945, but remained a reservist and was a colonel when he left and became governor in 1963.
At one point, his reserve unit's commander was a brigadier general named Barry Goldwater. They would meet again.
After the war, Scranton returned to law school, joined the Scranton firm of O'Malley, Hill, Harris & Harris, but quit the practice of law in July 1947 to become part of a team that revitalized the struggling International Textbook Co., part of Scranton-based International Correspondence Schools. He moved up to vice president of both companies, but moved on. He helped found and was a co-owner of WARM-TV, but then joined the Scranton-Lackawanna Trust Co. and became its president in 1954. In 1956, the trust merged into the Northeastern Pennsylvania National Bank and Trust Co.
In the meantime, WARM merged with WILK-TV to form WNEP-TV and Scranton headed the new company's board from 1954 to 1959. He also served on the boards of the merged bank, the textbook company, International Salt Co. and the Lackawanna Railroad.
"I was learning about corporations and business, and the kids were growing fast," Scranton wrote in an unpublished autobiography.
He was active in state Republican politics, but as he wrote in his autobiography, Scranton said Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, "out of the blue," offered him a chance to work as a special assistant dealing with the press in the State Department.
"It was always a little mysterious how that happened," said Susan Scranton Dawson, Scranton's daughter. "The way he told it to us was all of a sudden there were FBI agents in Scranton looking into his past and then he was in the State Department."
Scranton called his job "State Department leak" and later moved into a job that dealt directly with the White House and President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration.
The jobs proved a harbinger.
"It surprised his mother," Dawson said. "She was very opposed to him going into politics."
According to his official state biography, Scranton suffered from asthma as a child and she thought the stress and infighting that comes with politics would hurt her frail boy.
"She died before he got into his congressional campaign," Dawson said. "He never was quite sure why she didn't want him to go into politics. He thought it might have been to protect him from the difficulties. I don't think he would have gone to Congress if he had gone directly from what he was doing here."
In the second job, Scranton represented the State Department at several international conferences.
"Never in my life did I learn so much so quickly," Scranton wrote. "That job, which lasted until February 1960, was an enormous education with every item from all over the world and internally from the departments coming to my desk before going to the Secretary of State."
With Scranton in the State Department and President Eisenhower soon to leave office, local Republican leaders got a bright idea. Again, Scranton said it was "out of the blue."
The leaders wanted him to run for Congress in 1960 in the heavily Democratic 10th Congressional District against an incumbent Democrat, Stanley A. Prokop, a Jefferson Twp. dairy farmer who narrowly won the seat two years earlier from Republican Joseph Carrigg.
"Mary and I discussed it all night long," he wrote. "Running for Congress was one of the most interesting and enjoyable experiences of my life. We were fighting a machine - the Lawler machine."
Michael Lawler was a longtime Lackawanna County commissioner and the undisputed kingpin of local Democratic politics. President John F. Kennedy later told him "the Lawler machine ... was the strongest anywhere," Scranton wrote.
The Scrantons campaigned door to door in many voting districts and stumped at factory gates and clambakes.
"Though always a people-to-people person, I admit to becoming more so after that wonderful experience," he wrote. "It taught me the values and the finesses of most Americans. ... (O)n the whole I found ... that most Americans are hard-working, caring and patriotic."
Scranton defeated Prokop by 17,000 votes in a year when Kennedy won the county by more than 30,000. A campaign that taught people how to split their vote between parties was a key factor, but so was Scranton's common touch, said former Scranton Mayor James McNulty, a Democrat who watched the race as a 15-year-old.
"Ironically, it was the poor people of Northeastern Pennsylvania's districts who elected the two millionaires, Jack Kennedy and Bill Scranton," McNulty said. "People did not resent the fact that he (Scranton) was a millionaire. They were proud of the fact that a millionaire asked them (in person) for their vote."
Scranton's congressional career was brief, though he earned the nickname "Kennedy Republican" because, as his state biography notes, he voted 54 percent of the time with the president's agenda. He supported civil rights, Social Security benefits, welfare and the Peace Corps and voted to increase the minimum wage and for the Area Redevelopment Act, which targeted areas of chronic unemployment such as his district.
Scranton had planned to run for a second term in Congress and probably retire after that, but Republican leaders, including former President Eisenhower, were unhappy with the candidates for U.S. Senate and governor in the 1962 election.
"The pressure was on and I finally said that I would run if they could get all 67 county chairmen to support me, knowing full well they could not. But they went to work and got 66 of them!" Scranton wrote.
His opponent was Richardson Dilworth, a Democratic reformist former Philadelphia mayor, tough ex-Marine and a Yalie like him, but almost two decades older.
In a hotly contested election, Scranton's calm style contrasted with Dilworth's shoot-from-the-hip campaign method. He won easily and set about changing his state.
In four years, Scranton created the state's community college system, the state Board of Education and the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency; consolidated school districts from about 2,000 to about 500; widely expanded the state park system and funded many new local parks; set the stage for a convention to revamp the state's constitution; oversaw the construction of major new highways; modernized its banking system; added 29,000 employees to the state civil service system; led an effort to eradicate culm dumps, the ugly leftovers of the state's dying coal mining era; and rescued the state's workers compensation, unemployment compensation and welfare insurance funds. He disdained deficits in budgets, but was willing to raise taxes to balance them and so he increased the state sales, liquor and cigarette taxes. By his final year in office, unemployment was under 3 percent.
"He was undoubtedly one of the most significant and impressive governors in the history of the state serving only one term," Dr. Madonna said. "The list of his accomplishments goes on and on and on. ... He was always seen as a moderate, always seen as someone who could develop relationships with Republicans and Democrats, who could constantly move the state forward. It isn't even arguable about his successes as governor."
Most of that, Scranton wrote, happened in his first two years because it was right about then that political circumstances intervened again.
His Air Force Reserve superior was now Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., the leading Republican candidate for president in 1964. By the standards of the time, Goldwater was a hardcore conservative, who is now given credit for helping to launch the modern conservative movement.
He was also well on his way to nomination, and moderate and liberal Republicans weren't happy about it fearing Goldwater could not win because he was too divisive. Their candidate, New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, a moderate, had backed out and they were looking for a replacement only weeks before the Republican National Convention.
They persuaded Scranton, who campaigned for five weeks, pretty much knowing his chances of gaining the nomination were slim.
"He said he ran for president because Goldwater had voted against the civil rights bill and he thought there ought to be an alternative," his daughter, Dawson, said.
In reality, Scranton had no chance. At the convention, the delegates were largely behind Goldwater and in a fighting mood.
One delegate grabbed his sister Kay by the lapels and shook her.
"Your brother is a communist!" the man raged, Scranton wrote.
No, he isn't, she told him, to which the man replied, "he has blacks in his delegation."
Goldwater won the nomination, lost overwhelmingly to President Lyndon Johnson that fall and earned a different place in history.
So did Scranton, who finished out his term as governor and vowed he would never seek public office again.
He had a chance to run for the U.S. Senate in 1968 against Democratic incumbent Joe Clark, but declined.
"I worked very hard for four years to make Pennsylvania better," he told his sister, according to his official biography. "And it was better. A lot better, permanently. But I was exhausted and my wife had been without a husband for four years and my children without a father."
Instead, he spent the rest of his life as sort of a heavyweight fix-it man, interspersing directorships on the boards of major corporations with service to presidents and others.
When Detroit residents rioted in the summer of 1967, President Johnson called on him to be part of a commission that studied insuring damage in areas damaged by riots. Around the same time, he served as a delegate and headed a key committee at the convention that rewrote the state's constitution.
President Richard Nixon offered him the job of secretary of state and ambassadorships to Japan, Germany and later France, Scranton wrote, but he had no rapport with the president and suspected Nixon only wanted him because he was popular. In 1970, after the deadly riots at Kent State University in Ohio and Jackson State College in Mississippi, Nixon appointed him to head a commission to study the problem.
Four years later, Nixon, under fire because of Watergate, resigned and Scranton's old law school classmate, Ford, took over. Ford named Scranton to his transition team, not long before Nixon quit. Scranton called it "one of the most interesting (experiences) I ever had."
He advised the president against pardoning Nixon, but Ford did it anyway. Recalling that when Ford died in 2006, Scranton said his friend was right.
"The country needed a stabilization and a period of calm and so forth. And he understood that and that was more important than what happened to him," Scranton said in an interview.
For the last 10 months of his term, Ford rewarded Scranton with the ambassadorship to the United Nations.
He succeeded Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the eloquent future New York senator, but, according to Scranton, "a disaster" as an administrator. Scranton reorganized the mission, re-established contact with countries Moynihan had stopped talking to and said he achieved other major goals including limiting criticism of Israel and establishing an American position on human rights.
"It was a task which proved to be extremely interesting and of which I am quite proud," Scranton wrote.
After that, Scranton served on several panels for President Jimmy Carter, but mainly began concentrating again on home.
He was always active locally. He served on numerous local boards, and took credit for being "primary instigator" in turning what was known as the Community Chest into a countywide organization. It later became the Lackawanna United Fund and the United Way.
He played background roles in establishing manufacturing plants operated locally by Trane Corp., RCA, General Dynamics, Schott Glass Technologies and Harper & Row and helped ensure the financing to keep The Globe Store in local control before it finally closed, according to his biography.
If a project needed a boost, he either offered to help or said yes when asked. In the early 1980s, McNulty needed help convincing Nelson Blount, the owner of a museum of vintage railroad cars in Vermont, to move them to a new museum that the mayor and other local leaders wanted to open in Scranton. Eventually, the idea evolved into the Steamtown National Historic Site.
"I think he made a huge difference because he gave them confidence that there was a substantial person in the community who they knew by reputation as being very fair-minded and financially responsible," McNulty said. "He assured them that the whole community was behind this effort and would pursue it and make it happen."
In his later years, Scranton remained civic minded and sometimes in unusual ways. McNulty and others remember him walking in downtown and picking up litter. Indeed, his official biography, amid a long list of credentials, lists him as a "strong supporter of PAL (People Against Litter).
"He was a neatnik," his daughter said.
In 1988, Scranton resigned from all his business and government affiliations and went back to school. Always a voracious reader, he studied Latin, Italian and the history and art of the Italian Renaissance, according to his biography. Dawson said she took a course with her father at the University of Scranton centered on Leonardo da Vinci, the famed Italian artist and scholar.
"We were assigned a 20-page paper, and he turned in 120-page paper. He also had read the entire textbook before the class started," Dawson said. "He worked hard."
Scranton's passions included a love of the theater and trips to Broadway marked by perhaps the few moments he brought attention to himself, wittingly or unwittingly.
William Warren Scranton loved to sing along with the musical he was watching. Loudly.
"I remember when we were all there and incredibly embarrassed because he was so loud," Dawson said.
She and her brother, William, remembered a warm father who let his children find their own way in the world.
"He looms throughout my life," William Scranton said. "He was restless, always on the go. ... You just knew he was a very good man and you wanted to live up to that standard."
In his 20s, Scranton's eldest son took on a rather liberal lifestyle, though he said it was never rebellion against his father.
"He was very patient with it," he said. "I'm sure I tried his patience a great deal."
Dawson said she had "a very liberal father."
"When I was 20 and told him I wanted to hitchhike across Africa, he said, 'Go for it,'" she said. "I got myself into some situations I probably shouldn't have gotten into in a mini-skirt in the middle of Africa, but he was all for it. He was all for expanding your world as much as you wanted to."
And helping to expand the worlds of others.
It was not lost on McNulty that after all the former governor had experienced, he turned to plugging away more directly at making his local world better.
"That's because Bill Scranton was never in it for Bill Scranton," McNulty said. "Bill Scranton was in it for Scranton, the community and for making a difference."
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