Claiborne Pell, the quirky blueblood who represented blue-collar Rhode Island in the Senate for 36 years and was the force behind a grant program that has helped tens of millions of Americans attend college, died today of Parkinson's disease. He was 90. Pell sponsored legislation creating the Basic Educational Opportunity Grants, which passed in 1972 and provided direct aid to college students. The awards were renamed "Pell Grants" in 1980.
By the time Pell retired, the grants had aided more than 54 million low- and middle-income Americans. "Any student who has ever received federal aid has Senator Pell to thank for his or her education," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Pell was first elected to the Senate in 1960. Though he spoke with an aristocratic tone, he was an unabashed liberal who spent his political career championing causes to help the less fortunate.