Harris Wofford, Politician and Youth Development Advocate, Passes at Age 92

Harris Wofford – civil rights activist, former senator and advocate for service learning – is awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal by Barack Obama in 2013.

In the 1990s, Harris Wofford helped establish a national day of community service to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day each year. This week, he passed away on the holiday he helped augment.

Wofford, a civil rights activist and an early leader on service learning, passed away Monday at the age of 92 after complications from a fall. Wofford got his start in politics on the staff of President John F. Kennedy, where he would help establish the Peace Corps. He was also one of the Kennedy aides who in 1960 urged candidate Kennedy to call Coretta Scott King when her husband was jailed in Georgia. News of that call is credited with dramatically building the African-American turnout for Kennedy.

Decades later, in 1991, Wofford won a special election to succeed Sen. John Heinz (D-Penn.). He served in the Senate until 1995, losing in his first regular election to Rick Santorum (R).

During his time in the Senate, Wofford was influential in crafting the legislation to create the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency established by the George H.W. Bush that oversees federal service-learning programs including AmeriCorps. During the Clinton administration, he would become the agency’s CEO.

“CNCS and the larger national service community will deeply miss Harris and are honored to carry forward his vision and work every day,” said current CEO Barbara Stewart. “Our heartfelt sympathies are with his family and his loved ones. As we remember and celebrate his extraordinary life, we must also redouble our efforts to expand opportunities for Americans to serve.”

Wofford also served a term as chairman of America’s Promise (AP), which he also helped to establish, a national nonprofit that advocates for communities to guarantee five promises to children: caring adults, safe places, a healthy start, quality education and service-learning opportunities.

Wofford succeeded former Montana Gov. Mark Racicot in the position when Racicot became chairman of the Republican National Committee, leaving Wofford to co-chair AP with Alma Powell (wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell).

“Harris was a champion for the dignity of every person, and especially devoted to seeing the possibility in every young person,” said a statement on AP’s website. “He never wavered in his devotion to those ideals.”

Wofford was a senior adviser to The Sheridan Group, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm focused on human services issues including child welfare.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.