Posted: April 14, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

A memorial service is an unlikely setting for making a political stand, but the one for former Gov. Elbert N. Carvel, who was known for making those stands himself, was an opportunity that Gov. Ruth Ann Minner did not let go by.

Carvel in his day took on discrimination based on race, and Minner is taking on discrimination based on sexual orientation, and she made the parallel plain.

Minner led a lineup of Delaware governors who spoke Tuesday in Legislative Hall in Dover at a remembrance for Carvel, the governor known as "Big Bert" who served two terms split between 1949-1953 and 1961-1965.

Carvel died Feb. 6, three days away from what would have been his 95th birthday, and this was his second public memorial service, following one a month ago in Laurel, the little Sussex County town where he lived.

There are many things that Carvel has been remembered for -- how he was an oak of a man at six-foot-six, how he had a people-loving personality with laughter in his eyes and a foghorn of a voice, but most of all, how he was not afraid to make a stand, even if it cost him politically, as it did when he stood against bigotry and the death penalty.

"Bert Carvel was simply the very best," said former Gov. Pierre S. "Pete" du Pont.

Carvel broke the back of racial discrimination in Delaware, pushing the state where it did not necessarily want to go a century after the Emancipation Proclamation, by championing a public accommodations law in 1963 to open up public places like restaurants and movies to all.

Minner seized on that legacy of her fellow Democratic executive. She called Carvel "a governor with a vision of a state that would treat all people equally," and called up the lesson that he had taught her -- "Just do the right thing."

Minner never specifically mentioned House Bill 36, the current version of gay anti-discrimination legislation that has been approved by the state House of Representatives but denied a vote in the state Senate.

Still, the inference was there as she spoke of Delaware's "checkered history" -- a slave state, although one that stayed in the Union, a state that dawdled on women's suffrage, a state that endured civil-rights-era rioting.

"If there is anything I have resolved to myself in the time since Big Bert's passing, it is to take a fresh look at our state," Minner said. "We should welcome the opportunity for new ideas and new approaches."

Among Minner's listeners was Senate President Pro Tem Thurman G. Adams Jr., a Bridgeville Democrat who was close to Carvel and will have a lot to say about whether House Bill 36 ever comes up for a vote in his chamber. He did not interpret Minner's remarks about Carvel and public accommodations as an analogy.

"No, I don't think so," Adams said.

The hour-long memorial service drew a sparse crowd, perhaps three dozen people, but it did bring together a concentration of four of the seven living ex-governors, all who could be there. Some of them had fought campaigns against one another, but long enough ago that their membership in the exclusive fraternity of former governors now meant more.

They stood chummily in a row, arranged in their order of office: Republican Russell W. Peterson (1969-1973), who lost to Democrat Sherman W. Tribbitt (1973-1977), who lost to Republican Pete du Pont (1977-1985), who ushered in an era of governors who served out the two terms allowed by the state constitution.

U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the Republican governor from 1985 to1993, and U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the Democratic governor from 1993 to 2001, could not attend because the Congress was in session.

Dale E. Wolf, a Republican lieutenant governor who served out the end of Castle's term after he departed for Washington, was there. David P. Buckson, another Republican lieutenant governor who moved up when the late Gov. J. Caleb Boggs was sworn into the U.S. Senate in 1961, could not attend because he was traveling.

Political acclaim can be elusive, but there was no forgetting what the governors who came to memorialize Carvel had accomplished.

Peterson saved the shoreline with the Coastal Zone Act. Tribbitt saved the state from ruin by rescuing the Farmers Bank. Du Pont saved the economy with the Financial Center Development Act, which brought the banks here.

Minner has saved the state from smoking, but she showed she did not want to stop there, not with House Bill 36 languishing in the Senate.

"As Carvel would say," Minner said as she ended her remarks, "search your soul, do the right thing."