Bill Clinton eulogizes Claiborne Pell

January 5, 2009 9:20:04 AM PST
Former President Bill Clinton praised the late Sen. Claiborne Pell during his funeral service Monday as a quirky multimillionaire who served the less-fortunate and enabled millions of Americans to afford college. The Rhode Island Democrat died Thursday at the age of 90. He had suffered for years from Parkinson's disease.

Clinton, speaking during the funeral service at Trinity Episcopal Church, noted that when he was a freshman at Georgetown University, his dorm room overlooked the backyard of Pell's home.

That enabled Clinton to watch the family, whom he described as "American royalty."

After winning the presidency, Clinton received a tour of the home and noticed the portraits of Pell ancestors in formal white wigs.

"Where I came from, only people who were bald wore wigs, and they weren't white and curled," Clinton said. "Even after all those years, I still felt as I did when I was a boy: that there was something almost magical about this man who was born to aristocracy but cared about people, like the people I grew up with."

Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy also addressed the congregation, describing Pell as a polite fighter with a long list of legislative achievements. Vice President-elect Joe Biden called Pell ahead of his time for supporting the United Nations.

First elected to the Senate in 1960, the multimillionaire who sometimes jogged in a tweed coat spent his career representing a working-class state.

He sponsored legislation creating the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant program, which passed in 1972 and provided direct aid to college students. The awards were renamed "Pell Grants" in 1980. By the time he retired, they had aided more than 54 million low- and middle-income Americans.

Pell was also the main Senate sponsor of the 1965 law creating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He participated in the 1945 San Francisco conference that wrote the United Nations charter and served in the U.S. foreign service for seven years.

Pell left office in January 1997 after his sixth term.