Arlen Specter LAW ’56, a former United States senator from Pennsylvania who stood out in Congress for his independent politics, died Sunday in Philadelphia of complications related to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 82.
Considered one of the few remaining moderates, Specter served as a Republican senator for almost 30 years before announcing in 2009 that he would run for reelection as a Democrat because the ideology of the Republican party had shifted too far to the right — a decision that preceded the end to his political career when he lost in the 2010 Democratic primaries. A politician whom President Barack Obama called “fiercely independent,” Specter was rarely partisan: he opposed gay marriage but held “pro-choice” beliefs and voted in favor of the Iraq War. Specter’s classmates at Yale said they will remember Specter for his academic excellence, his sense of humor and his unbiased approach to political issues.
“He distinguished himself by his principled positions on many issues, resulting in much-needed legislation and funding, and he took those positions regardless of the political consequences,” said Jan Dubois LAW ’57, a federal judge on the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
Born in 1930, Specter grew up in Kansas, selling melons alongside his father, Harry Specter, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine. He attended Russell High School and the University of Oklahoma before transferring to the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1951.
Specter had a warm personality and loved to make jokes, Dubois said, adding that Specter had remained in good spirits even while he battled cancer.
When Specter lost the Democratic primary in 2010, he turned his attention to an amateur comedy career, performing stand-up in Philadephia and New York.
“I’ve been in comedy now for 30 years,” Specter said at a comedy show in Philadelphia last December, referring to his career as a Senator. “The only difference is, it’s not stand-up — we all have comfortable chairs. It costs about 27 million dollars to win a seat, so when you win one, you like to sit down.”
Well before Specter’s political career began, he served in the United States Air Force before enrolling at the Yale Law School.
Dubois met Specter when he and his wife were invited for Sunday brunch at the Specters’ home in New Haven.
At the time, the Specters inhabitated one half of a quonset hut — a type of prefabricated metal structure used by the military during World War II — Dubois said. Clusters of these inexpensive buildings, erected at the foot of Science Hill and on the athletic fields, housed married Yale students, many of whom were veterans.
“[The Specters] had to stoke their own coal furnace,” Dubois said. “It was far from luxurious.”
Despite his humble circumstances, Specter distinguished himself as an outstanding student at Yale Law School, winning prizes in competitions and serving as an editor of the Yale Law Journal.
Jon Newman LAW ’56, a federal judge on the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, recalled competing with Specter — a college debater — against two other finalists in the Law School’s annual Moot Court competition. Specter won the prize for best oral presentation.
Specter remained a dedicated Law School alumnus, attending several reunions. An honorary member of the Yale Law School Association Executive Committee, he endowed a scholarship to the Law School in 2007 and hosted almost 80 members and guests from the Class of 1956 for a tour of the Capitol Building in 2008.
Specter is survived by his wife, Joan; sister, Shirley Kety; children, Shanin and Stephen; and four grandchildren.