Philadelphia remembers Sen. Specter as a gutsy, bold leader ‘with the ability to light fuses and create events’

For both Fallsers and Philadelphians at large, former Senator Arlen Spector was a national-scale politician who served the public for decades, representing both Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in his political career, first as District Attorney, later as United States Senator.

In addition, Specter lived in East Falls for over 50 years, traveling to Washington, DC for most of the last two decades of his life from a home located off of School House Lane. In keeping with his local allegiances, neighboring Philadelphia University will house his archives at the Arlen Specter Center for Public Policy.

NewsWorks has collected remembrances from a host of sources, colleagues and community members alike.

Pennsylvania officials weigh in 

“For more than five decades, Arlen Specter lived a life devoted to public service on behalf of the people of Pennsylvania and the United States,” said Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett. “Pennsylvania has lost a political figure whose career stretched from Philadelphia’s City Hall to the chambers of the U.S. Senate. We are saddened to hear of his death.”

“Senator Arlen Specter was a great man and a great public servant,” said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. “He served this City as District Attorney and as United States Senator from Pennsylvania for many, many years. He cared about people, gave voice to the voiceless, and stood up for everyday Philadelphians, Pennsylvanians and Americans at every opportunity.

“I certainly enjoyed a very warm, personal and professional relationship with him during my time as a member of City Council, and even more importantly, as Mayor of our great City,” continued Nutter. “His door and resources were always open and available to virtually any request I made on behalf of the City. He displayed gutsy, bold, strategic leadership on any number of issues. We will all miss the voice and leadership of Senator Arlen Specter. May God bless him, his wife Joan, and his family.”

Congressman Chaka Fattah spoke highly of his departed colleague, saying that “Arlen Specter was an important mentor and inspiration for me, and he was my friend.”

“The long arc of his career in public service touches on most major moments in contemporary American history,” observed Fattah. “Those moments required great leadership and Senator Specter always met the challenge.”

A ‘mentor’ and a ‘real man of the people’ 

Political leaders from the Northwest also weighed in.

“I am saddened by the loss of Senator Arlen Specter,” said Eighth District Councilwoman Cindy Bass. “Senator Specter was a true champion for Philadelphia and consistently fought hard in Washington for the needs of its citizens.

“Having had the opportunity to interact with Senator Specter on many occasions, I can say that he was always kind and gracious, and was a real man of the people,” she continued. “My thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends during this difficult time.”

Fourth District Councilman Curtis Jones, Jr. told NewsWorks that the Senator saved his father’s life while he was working as a miner in Africa.

“We called the State Department – they had no record he was there,” said Jones. By way of contrast, “We called Specter and in a week we had a telegram from my father, who had contracted malaria.”

City Commissioner Al Schmidt, who shares Specter’s East Falls’ zip code, said that Specter was a mentor, owing to the late senator’s work ethic and “fierce independence from partisanship.”

“He was special, both personally and professionally,” observed Schmidt, noting that Specter was both a neighbor and the first major elected official to provide the aspirant Republican controller with an endorsement.

Noting the chasm that often exists between public perception and private characteristics, Schmidt said, “everything you heard about [Specter] was true, up-close and personally – he was consistently independent.”

Independent and ‘approachable’ 

With fifty years of residence in East Falls, neighbors had stories to share as well.

Gina Snyder, executive director of the East Falls Development Corporation, had but one personal interaction with Specter, which occurred in January of 2008 at the lighting of the Falls Bridge.

Snyder invited a bevy of local elected officials to the event, many of whom were partaking in hospitality at the nearby East River Bank on Ridge Ave. She said that Specter arrived “out of the blue” – on foot and by himself – eventually being encouraged to push a button to drown the bridge in fluorescence.

“He came, did it, and signed the photograph,” she recalled. “There was no fuss: He didn’t come with an entourage. It was absolutely lovely.”

Ellen Sheehan, president of the East Falls Historical Society, told of plans to conduct an oral history with Specter that unfortunately never came to fruition.

“We were interested in why he came to East Falls, and why he stayed,” said Sheehan, mentioning that then-District Attorney Specter’s residence on Warden Drive was often besieged with protestors, necessitating police supervision of the property. He later moved to a more private residence.

While she was never formally introduced, Sheehan shared that Specter could often be seen on Sunday mornings walking with his wife, interacting with residents who voiced their personal positions on matters of public policy.

“He was approachable,” she said of the perambulatory Senator. “I think he did that to stay in touch with the people.

‘He would do anything – no, everything – for Philadelphia and Pennsylvania 

Michael Markovitz, an East Falls resident, attorney, and former president of the Germantown Cricket Club, had a unique relationship with the late senator: Squash partner.

Markovitz first met Specter in 1998, and the two played for several years at the nearby GCC. “He was vigorous in everything he did,” said Markovitz, noting that Specter was more concerned with how the game was played than the results.

So deep was Specter’s love for the game that he allegedly carried his racquet with him at all times, and often had members of his staff arrange games while traveling overseas. In addition, there were reports of a “black book” that tracked his matches, but Markovitz suggested that it would have been unwieldy, given its breadth.

However, it wasn’t all fun and games: Markovitz recalled that Specter was sensitive to local issues, specifically mentioning the former senator’s participation in an initiative to repave School House Lane, walking the sloped street to mediate with community members.

In addition, Specter invited Markovitz, who was active at the time with the East Falls Community Council, to participate in a meeting between then-mayor Ed Rendell and representatives of the federal government who were discussing plans for the site of the Schuylkill Falls housing projects.

Markovitz recalled that Rendell “painted a picture” that all was well with the Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Markovitz said he rebutted this description at the meeting, triggering a “big explosion” from Rendell.

Asking Specter afterward why he was chosen to participate, Markovitz recalled the Senator saying to him, “Well, I knew you weren’t going to sit there and lie.”

“He had an ability to light fuses and create events,” observed Markovitz. “He would do anything – no, everything – for Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.”

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