Posted: Oct. 29, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

There are any number of ways to contribute to public life, whether it is through the high visibility of elected office or appointment, the elegance of ideas, the drudgery of literature drops or even the simple act of voting.

Jim Soles was the grandest patron of them all. He contributed governors, a senator, judges, Cabinet secretaries, countless lawyers, aides, campaign volunteers and decade after decade of pie-in-the-sky inspiration.

It should also be remembered how he relished the grunt work of drafting political brochures and making campaign calls himself. He was a Harry Truman Democrat and proud to say it.

Officially Soles was a professor of political science at the University of Delaware, but it would be better to call him the Delaware professor of political life.

Soles, who was 75, died early this morning from pneumonia to close out a remarkable partnership with his wife Ada Leigh Soles, a former Democratic state representative who died in June.

Together they presided over an extended political family stretching upstate, downstate and beyond the state and encompassing both political parties.

In recognition, the state flags were ordered to half-staff by Jack Markell, the Democratic governor.

"Delaware lost one of its great scholars and citizens," Markell said.

Jim Soles had the intellect of a scholar, the instincts of a poker player, the heart of a warrior, the mischievousness of a two-year-old and a sophisticated appreciation for fine bourbon. All of it came solidly compact in a frame no taller than a jockey's.

There was something of Moses in him, too. He never got to the Promised Land of elected office himself, although he was the Democratic congressional candidate in the Watergate election of 1974, unable to unseat Pete du Pont, the Republican congressman who went on to be governor.

Soles also had an unsinkable spirit that made him a master of life's ironies. As his increasing frailties caught up with him this last year, he joked he had posted a reminder at his bedside. It said, "Your name is Jim Soles, and you are at home."

Soles' connection to governors is legendary. Tom Carper, the Democratic senator and ex-governor, became part of the Soles network as the treasurer on the congressional campaign. Markell got an early taste for politics as a 13-year-old when his parents hosted a coffee for Soles' candidacy. Chris Christie, the Republican governor in New Jersey, was a student.

"Jim Soles gave politics a good name, and the thousands of students whose lives he touched as their professor have gone on to give Delaware a good name throughout this country and around the world," Carper said.

"I will always be in his debt. He gave me the chance to serve as treasurer and fund raiser in his 1974 congressional campaign when I was fresh out of the Navy working on an MBA at the university. I learned so much from him that guides me to this day."

Soles touched judges like Bill Chandler, the chancellor of the Court of Chancery, and Len Stark, sworn in earlier this month on the U.S. District Court, as well as Cabinet secretaries like Ed Freel, the secretary of state for Carper, and Carl Danberg, the corrections commissioner for Markell.

Soles did more than send his students out into the world. He kept up with them through the "Soles seminar," a weekend gathering once or twice a year at the beach for anywhere from a dozen to two dozen people.

"It was classic Jim Soles. We would talk nothing but pure politics. It was like an advanced seminar, and he was the dean. People came from all over the country. You can imagine the group, huddled around a table in a condominium and talking politics until the wee hours and then getting up the next morning and starting all over again," Chandler said.

"He believed in giving back to the nation and the state. So many people like myself did just what he taught us to do. I'm sure Jim will want us to continue the seminars."

Soles was fiercely loyal, but it stopped short of being unforgiving. He was deeply involved in the 2004 campaign of Paul Pomeroy, his son-in-law who ran as a Republican for state representative in Newark, but this year he was doing everything he could for Terry Schooley, the Democratic state representative who won that race.

Soles' commitment to education went beyond the classroom. He was also the chair of Delaware Technical & Community College, and his legacy will continue at the University of Delaware through the James R. Soles Citizenship Endowment, which created a political science professorship, currently held by Joe Pika, and provides stipends for students to participate in civic projects.

"Jim will be best remembered as a teacher and a mentor. We all know a lot of his well-known students, but there will be thousands of people across the country, people we do not know who they are, bowing their heads this weekend," Freel said.

If Delaware had an oracle, it was Jim Soles. He changed lives and made people better than they ever thought they could be. No wonder his name was pronounced the same as souls.