Former senator, cabinet secretary, Richard Schweiker, 89, dies

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Sen. Richard Schweiker, R-Pa., a member of a Senate Health and Scientific Research subcommittee, during a meeting of the panel Wednesday, April 4, 1979 in Washington. (AP File Photo/Charles Harrity)

Richard Schultz Schweiker, 89, a political novice who rose from the unlikely incubator of Norristown to become a U.S. congressman, senator, and secretary of health and human services, died Friday, July 31.

Mr. Schweiker died of complications from an infection at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center in South Jersey. He had lived in McLean, Va., since 1969.

"I am very, very sad to hear that the former senator has passed away," said Frank R. Bartle, former Montgomery County Republican chairman.

"He is a great man. He was great for the county, great for the state, and great for the nation."

In 1960, at age 34, Mr. Schweiker, then a little-known tile company president, won election to the House, where he served on the Government Operations and Armed Services Committee. He represented Pennsylvania's 13th District.

He was reelected to the House in 1962, 1964, and 1966. He authored the Schweiker Act of 1965, which provided cash awards to military personnel who suggested money-saving ideas. The act resulted in substantial savings to taxpayers.

Mr. Schweiker ran for the Senate in 1968 against Joseph S. Clark Jr., a well-known incumbent and former Philadelphia mayor. He won by a quarter of a million votes, in part by buying billboards that proclaimed, "Vote Clark Out."

Clark agreed to a series of debates that enhanced Mr. Schweiker's visibility, Sen. Arlen Specter told The Inquirer in a 2011 interview.

Both men were considered liberal, but Clark was a strong gun-control advocate. Schweiker was not.

Specter told The Inquirer that while in Armstrong County, northeast of Pittsburgh, for a speaking engagement, he recalled seeing a line six blocks long outside an NRA meeting.

"I knew Joe Clark was losing that election," Specter said.

The Senate victory gave Mr. Schweiker a higher profile. He won reelection in 1974 with 53 percent of the vote, earning the highest vote total for that era of any U.S. senator from Pennsylvania since 1946.

He served as ranking Republican on both the Labor and Human Resources Committee and the Labor-Health and Human Services appropriations subcommittee, the two units that controlled legislation and appropriations for labor, health, education, aging, and public welfare. Few senators have reached such a key dual position, his family said in a tribute.

Reagan connection

In 1976, he was selected by Ronald Reagan to be his running mate if he was selected by the GOP national convention. Reagan was seeking a more moderate presence on the ticket, but the Republican nomination went to President Gerald R. Ford.

Andrew L. "Drew" Lewis Jr. had run Mr. Schweiker's election campaigns, but Lewis supported Ford for president, and Schweiker backed Reagan. The political fallout drove a wedge between the two men that lasted for years.

In 1980, Mr. Schweiker served as Reagan's Northeastern states campaign chairman. When Reagan won the general election, he named Mr. Schweiker the 14th secretary of health and human services. He served in the cabinet from 1981 to 1983.

Reagan named Lewis secretary of transportation. He, too, served from 1981 to 1983.

"Growing up as a young person in the North Penn area, the political people you would hear about were Dick Schweiker and Drew Lewis. They were revered in the upper end of the county, and eventually throughout the state and the nation," said Bartle.

Their appointments in Reagan's cabinet put the state and Montgomery County on the political map, Bartle said.

Mr. Schweiker was sworn in on Jan. 22, 1981. As secretary, he led the effort to set up a prospective payment system to control Medicare costs. The move marked the first change to Medicare since its inception.

"Dick was a gentleman of the old school . . . a man of total integrity, and he was someone who served the public well," said Bob Asher, a longtime member of the Republican National Committee. "He was from that era where people on both sides of the aisle were willing to compromise and not get locked into any particular doctrinaire position.

"I had the highest admiration for him. He was a good man and a very honorable and flexible man," Asher said.

Born in Norristown, Mr. Schweiker was the son of Malcolm Alderfer Schweiker and Blanche Reiner Schultz Schweiker.

Mr. Schweiker was valedictorian of his class at Norristown High School. At 17, he enlisted in the Navy and served in World War II on the aircraft carrier Tarawa. In 1950, he graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a major in psychology. He was a member of Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity.

From 1950 to 1960, he was president of American Olean Tile Co., the family business in Lansdale.

In 1955, he married Claire Joan Coleman. She was the original Miss Claire on The Romper Room, a daily, hour-long TV program for preschool children aired by Philadelphia TV station WFIL.

The two met on a blind date, and six weeks later were engaged. They had a 57-year marriage. She died in 2013 at age 81.

"Richard and Claire deeply believed that they were put on this earth to be of service to God and their fellow man," said his family. That belief as well as the death of his older brother, Malcolm, in World War II motivated him to run for Congress, the family said.

He coauthored the book How to End the Draft, which proposed a formula later used in creating a volunteer army.

A passion for health issues

As ranking Republican on the Senate health subcommittee, Mr. Schweiker developed a passion for health issues. He worked on legislation to combat diabetes, cancer, heart disease, sickle cell anemia, and lead paint poisoning.

He led the fight against diabetes and authored bills creating the National Commission on Diabetes Advisory Board, and pushed for passage of the National Diabetes Act in 1972. Those efforts led to increased federal funding for diabetes programs, and became a prototype for legislatively constructing a research effort across all National Institutes of Health operations and the Centers for Disease Control.

Some of those who benefited from his diabetes initiatives called him "the patron saint of the pancreas," his family said.

His other major legislative initiatives included job training for the unskilled, civil rights, tuition tax relief, controlling imports, pension reform, mine safety, conversion of coal to natural gas and fuel oil, economy in government, and halting federal support for abortion.

He was one of the first GOP senators to call for President Richard M. Nixon's resignation during Watergate.

When he retired in 1983 after 22 years of public service, he became president of the American Council of Life Insurance, a post he held until 1994. During his tenure, Mr. Schweiker preserved the accrual of payout benefits to consumers on life insurance policies, and blocked proposed taxes on annuities and corporate-owned life insurance.

After his business career, Mr. Schweiker was a board member for many health-related groups, including Tenet Healthcare and Partnership for Prevention.

His faith was the catalyst for his community and church work, his family said. Mr. Schweiker worshipped at Central Schwenkfelder Church in Lansdale and later at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Washington. He received nine honorary doctoral degrees as well as dozens of awards and honors.

He enjoyed golf and skiing, but his favorite activity was spending time with his five children and 23 grandchildren in Ocean City, N.J. It was there that Mr. Schweiker spent his last week, visiting with his family.

"He was a dad who always spent time with his family despite his political career," said daughter Kyle Hard. "He came to our ballet recitals, sports events, concerts, even if it meant missing a dinner at the White House."

Besides his grandchildren and daughter, he is survived by sons Malcolm and Rich; daughters Lani Shelton and Kristi Carey; a great-grandchild; and a sister.

Services were pending.


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