Former Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker dies at 89
NORRISTOWN — Former U.S. Sen. Richard S. Schweiker of Pennsylvania, a liberal Republican who became Ronald Reagan’s surprise pick for vice president in his unsuccessful 1976 campaign and later served in his Cabinet, has died at 89.
Schweiker, a Norristown native who lived in McLean, Va., died Friday in Atlantic Care Regional Medical Center in Pomona, N.J., son Richard Schweiker Jr. said Monday. He had fallen ill while vacationing with family members in Ocean City, N.J.
“Our father had a wonderful life, and we were very fortunate to spend time together,” his son told the Tribune-Review. The family vacation, he said, is “something none of us ever misses. It seems almost appropriate we were all together.”
Former U.S. Rep. Bud Shuster said Schweiker was “a longtime advocate for the people of Pennsylvania, and then Americans from across the country.”
Shuster, 83, of Everett in Bedford County, a Republican who represented Pennsylvania for 28 years, said, “The impact (Schweiker) made over the years in our state and for our nation will always be remembered.”
Tom Ridge, the former Republican congressman and governor who went on to head Homeland Security, said Schweiker “served Pennsylvania and his country well in several important roles. A businessman who transitioned to public service, he served for many years with distinction and honor.”
Schweiker was among the most liberal Republicans in the Senate when Reagan named him to the 1976 ticket.
“I’m not a Republican stereotype,” Schweiker said shortly before the Republican National Convention in Kansas City. “And I’m not the kind of guy who can get the word from the party and vote for something that I don’t believe in.”
The two failed to win enough delegates to overcome then-President Gerald Ford, who went on to lose the election to Jimmy Carter.
Schweiker was legendary in Pennsylvania politics, said Rob Gleason, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party.
“He was a classic organization Republican. He worked his way up,” Gleason said.
Elected to the U.S. House in 1960 and the U.S. Senate in 1968, Schweiker was pro-labor and an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. An ardent supporter of a volunteer army, he co-authored the book, “How to End the Draft,” and pushed for enactment of the“Schweiker Act” of 1965 that provided cash awards to military personnel who suggested money-saving ideas.
The act has resulted in savings of more than $1 billion to taxpayers, Richard Schweiker Jr. said.
Schweiker became more conservative after 1976. He generally opposed abortion and gun control, and he favored only limited busing to achieve racial integration in neighborhood schools. After two Senate terms, Schweiker did not seek re-election in 1980.
When Reagan won the presidency that year, he brought Schweiker into his administration as secretary of Health and Human Services, where he worked to reform Social Security and Medicare, promoted preventive medicine, and trimmed federal welfare rolls. He dubbed it “the people’s department.”
Schweiker resigned in 1983 to head the Washington-based trade group American Council of Life Insurance, where he spent nearly 12 years before retiring.
Schweiker enlisted in the Navy at age 17 and served on the aircraft carrier USS Tarawa in World War II. His military service taught him “to get things done and solve problems,” he said in recent years when lamenting the rise in partisanship.
Schweiker Jr., 48, said his father was strongly influenced by his Lutheran faith and his parents, who instilled in him the value of serving God and his fellow man. That and the death of his brother on Okinawa during World War II were driving forces behind Schweiker’s decision to go into public service.
“He was deeply affected by the death of his brother Malcolm, who was killed in action during the war,” his son said.
Born in this Philadelphia suburb, Schweiker grew up in what he once described as “an atmosphere of typical Pennsylvania Dutch frugality.” However, his father, a former bricklayer, founded the prosperous American Olean Tile Co., which became the nation’s second-largest ceramic tile manufacturer. A Dallas company bought it in 1995.
Schweiker, who was not related to former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker, graduated from Penn State University in 1950, then spent a decade working in his father’s business. In 1955, he married Claire Joan Coleman, who appeared on television as Miss Claire on Philadelphia’s version of the “Romper Room” children’s series. She died in 2013.
He is survived by his five adult children: Malcolm of Oak Hill, Va., Lani of Herndon, Va., Kyle of Fairfax, Va., Rich of Richmond, Va., and Kristi of Napa, Calif. He is also survived by 23 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. In addition, he is survived by his sister, Sylvia Schweiker Strasburg of Worcester.
Funeral arrangements were incomplete as of Monday evening.
Brad Bumsted and Salena Zito are Trib Total Media staff writers. The Associated Press contributed.