Got a Pell Grant? Good. Now learn about its ‘quirky’ namesake

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By Greg Markley
For the Opelika
Observer

In Claiborne Pell’s first campaign for the U.S. Senate, his advisors worried that this super-wealthy man with many idiosyncrasies may not win because he lacked the ‘common touch’ Rhode Islanders like. Boy, were they mistaken! Pell won that 1960 election with relative ease. It didn’t hurt that he spoke French, Italian and Portuguese, three large ethnic constituencies in the state. Rhode Islanders began to love and admire his originality as much as his integrity.
Pell was full of quirks, such as wearing threadbare suits, using public transit and buying cheap used automobiles despite being rich. He wore his father Herbert’s belt as a memento, although he had to wrap it twice around his waist to make it fit. Most importantly, he became a giant in the Senate as chief sponsor of the Basic Education Opportunity Grants (BEOG). Since 1965, this has allowed students with low-incomes to achieve their dream of a college degree.
“Before there was a Pell Grant, there was an individual,” said David Evans, key staffer of the U.S. Senate’s Education subcommittee. “One of the things concerning me today is that people may think that ‘Pell’ is an acronym for something else and that it is not the name of an individual.” I saw a need for Pell’s achievement in having the BEOG grants named for him.
He was given a rare Senate honor: Having a prominent bill named exclusively for him. I highlight Pell’s “quirkiness” because I was born in Rhode Island and know them well. Also, I was in one of the first cohorts in 1978 to get a BEOG Grant—just two years before they were called ‘Pell Grants.’ My grants, for four years, made attending college doable for me.
In the Senate, Pell is best remembered for his tireless work in establishing Basic Education Opportunity Grants, later called Pell Grants. This legislation might be expected to be relatively easy to do, in the 1960s. What is wrong with helping distressed low-income students pay for college? Isn’t that part of a great society? But the bane of segregation was a wrench even in Congressional education debates.
Members of the House attached a “rider,” or non-germane amendment to an appropriations bill. This applies when a non-germane aspect changes the law that runs a program funded by the bill. This rider, amid one of the most contentious Civil Rights eras, was the higher education bill (1972) to bar federal funding of forced busing to achieve desegregation. 
Thus, it took challenging deal-making of the House-Senate conference committee and a compromise on busing language to secure enforcement of court orders until 1974, which freed Pell’s legislation to advance to enactment. In the conference committee, most historical accounts peg Pell as the pivotal person ending the gridlock on this legislation. Thus, these education grants came into being, under the Higher Education Act of 1965. It took until 1978, however, for Pell’s name to be formally placed on the grants as an honor.
One of Pell’s quirks was fascination with the idea that there was life on other planets, and he even went so far as hiring an investigator of paranormal activity. “Pell was not averse to psychic possibilities,” wrote his biographer G. Wayne Miller. “There might be government use for such powers, he believed — and even if not, inquiry into unconventional possibilities of the human mind appealed to his intellectual curiosity.”
What was Pell’s motivation in pushing government money to assist students? He often remarked that he sought to help students meet the high cost of a college education because the G.I. Bill meant so much to him personally. Yet with Pell’s wealth, he could have actually purchased some educational institutions they attended, and even paid their tuition bills! But he likely meant he saw how the G.I. Bill helped his fellow Coast Guardsmen after World War II.
A legend in Rhode Island about Pell is that when he was running for reelection in 1972, he was campaigning in Providence when it started pouring. He sent an aide to get him a pair of rubbers to protect his shoes. When the aide returned, Pell asked in formal speech, “To whom am I indebted for these fine rubbers?” “I got them from Thom McAn,” the aide replied, referring to the shoe store chain. Pell replied, “Well, do tell Mr. McAn that I am much obliged to him!”
“He was the right kind of aristocrat,” former President Clinton said at Pell’s funeral in 2009. “He was a champion by choice, not circumstance. That life is his last true Pell Grant.”
Now, you know the rest of the story about Pell Grants. In 1978, as a college junior, I complained about the application paperwork. Today there is more, but the end result is worth it. Just ask me.
Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 18 of the past 23 years. An award-winning journalist, he has master’s degrees in education and history.
He has taught as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.

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