Harris Wofford, senator from Pa., adviser to King, Kennedy, dies at 92

Pat Loeb
January 22, 2019 - 2:46 pm
President Barack Obama presents Harris Wofford, former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and former CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, with a 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal, Feb. 15, 2013.

Drew Angerer/Sipa USA

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Pennsylvania is mourning former U.S. Sen. Harris Wofford, who died Monday at the age of 92. 

He filled many roles in public service throughout his lifetime: co-founder of the Peace Corps; adviser to Martin Luther King, Jr.; Bryn Mawr College president; and state labor secretary.

Wofford's impact on the world may never be fully known. 

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute said Wofford who wrote a book on Gandhi in the 1950s with his wife, Claire advised King on his hallmark tactic of nonviolence. He gave the book to King and may have helped him get released from a Birmingham jail cell when he convinced presidential candidate John F. Kennedy to call King's wife, Coretta, to express his concern. 

Wofford's former spokesman Todd Bernstein said he was strategic.

"He waited for late at night until Bobby Kennedy was out of the room and other campaign staffers, because he knew they would shoot it down immediately," Bernstein recalled.

It's one reason Kennedy called Wofford "slightly mad" about civil rights, but Bernstein said it helped Kennedy defeat Nixon. 

Wofford's next project, the Peace Corps, changed lives, and not only for its volunteers, according to former Peace Corps Alumni Association President Kevin Quigley.

"We set up a Harris Wofford Global (Citizen) Award to recognize the impact that Peace Corps had on changemakers, leaders in other countries," said Quigley.

Wofford worked quietly and mostly behind the scenes, except for his years as a senator in the '90s. But he also was the founding leader of AmeriCorps and was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by then-President Barack Obama. 

Jacob Finkel traveled with Wofford for 10 years, working on a documentary about his life. He noted when Wofford left the Senate, he didn't slow down.

"He was the godfather of national service," Finkel recalled.

Wofford also transformed the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday into a day of service.

"He would have enjoyed the poetry of (his life) ending on Martin Luther King Day," added Finkel.

Wofford confided to friends that the biggest response he ever got was to his New York Times essay about finding love with a younger man, years after his wife died. He married Matthew Charlton in 2016 and is also survived by three children. 

Wofford died from complications after suffering a fall, his son told The Washington Post.