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A look at a ‘very different senator’

By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  September 23, 2009


Six-term Senator Claiborne Pell died at 90 early this year. And there were plenty of tributes to his work -- establishment of both the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities and the eponymous Pell Grant, which many a college student has relied on for financial aid.

But even lengthy summaries of his career fall short of completely capturing the man. So G. Wayne Miller is taking a leave of absence as a Providence Journal reporter to write a book that, he hopes, will provide a fuller picture.

To do so, Miller is seeking stories about the senator from Rhode Islanders, whether they knew him well or only briefly encountered him.

The biography, authorized by the Pell family, has the working title A Very Different Senator.

Pell was "like a character in some off-beat indie movie," Miller said in an email exchange discussing the book. "This is a man who drove rusty old cars held together, literally, with duct tape. He even had a roll cage in one of his cars because he was such a bad driver.

"Claiborne Pell was born into one of America's wealthiest families and he married into another," Miller added. "He could have passed his life lunching at Bailey's Beach and overseeing the trust funds, as many of his set did and still do; instead, he chose a life of public service."

Miller noted that Pell was courteous and respectful in his relations with everyone, seemingly without exception, whether senators or Woonsocket factory workers. "This comes through strongly in all of my interviews and research so far, and also from my many personal contacts with him before he died."

Pell's eccentric qualities abounded. He wore his old suits while jogging. And his interest in ESP and UFOs earned him the nickname "Airborne."

Miller's interest in writing about the senator got a substantial start four years ago when he wrote an extensive profile for the ProJo, titled "A Remarkable Life".

As a gentleman and a senator, Pell's attitude was about as different from that of Rep. Joe Wilson -- of the recent "You lie!" outburst -- as Miller can imagine. "His philosophy is best described in two frequently repeated quotes: 'I always try to let the other fellow have my way,' and 'Translate ideas into actions and help people.' "

Miller is the author of seven books and a producer of the documentary On the Lake, about the tuberculosis epidemic in America in the last century. He is currently working on the documentary Behind the Hedgerow, due for release next year, about old-money Newport society.

Anyone interested in contributing stories about Sen. Pell and his 36-year career may do so at,  a blog that follows Miller's work on the biography, and the author's Pell biography page on Facebook.

Related: One of a kind, Miller and Bettencourt document TB epidemic, C.J. Chivers's real journalism, More more >
  Topics: This Just In , Media, Claiborne Pell, Claiborne Pell,  More more >
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 See all articles by: BILL RODRIGUEZ

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