Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
November 29, 2014

Washington Responds to Passing of Nuala Pell, Widow of Former Rhode Island Senator

Nuala Pell, widow of former Rhode Island Sen. Claiborne Pell, passed away Sunday morning in Newport at age 89.

“Our entire family is heartbroken by my grandmother’s passing. She dedicated her life to her family and to the service of others. From her work in support of the arts, education, and her humanitarian service, she was a beacon of hope to many,” grandson Clay Pell said in a statement posted by Providence TV station WPRI. “We could not have asked for a better parent or grandparent than Mimi. We will love and miss her more than words can express.”

The younger Pell is running for governor of Rhode Island. His grandfather, the former senator and namesake of the landmark college aid program, died on New Year’s Day in 2009.

Nuala Pell was praised by many for her political involvement and commitment to issues like the arts and education.

She was raised a member of high society, an heiress of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company and described by Rhode Island Public Radio as, in her youth, “a young woman of great beauty, was raised amid wealth and pedigree in the last days of Anglo empire before World War II.”

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., delivered a eulogy at Sen. Pell’s funeral in 2009, and issued a statement Monday about Nuala Pell’s passing.

“Jill and I were saddened to hear of the passing of our dear friend, Nuala Pell. She and her husband, Senator Clairborne Pell, were among our closest friends. They embraced me in my earliest days in the Senate, after I had lost my wife and daughter. I spent many memorable evenings in their company, and through all the years we served together, I always knew I had a welcome home in Washington with the Pells,” Biden said.

“Nuala and Claiborne worked side by side on every issue, whether it was on behalf of the elderly, or women’s health care, or the arts and humanities, or access to education. After Claiborne passed, Nuala continued her lifetime of service, creating the Nuala Pell Leadership Program in Public Service to give future leaders the skills to enter public service,” added Biden. “Her lifetime of service will live on through the next generation of leaders she helped grow, and in the hearts of her many friends.”

Rhode Island’s top lawmakers echoed that sentiment.

“Nuala Pell worked hard to give others opportunity and she did it with incredible grace, decency, and compassion,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said. “A civic leader in her own right, Nuala was a spirited champion of the arts, education, and public service. Her lifetime commitment to service and generous contributions to our community will continue to impact countless lives.”

“Nuala Pell was ever present on the political campaign trail and her opinion was valued by many. Her passion for scholarship and the humanities led to a decades-long advocacy of public service and philanthropy,” said Democratic Gov. Lincoln Chafee, himself a former senator. “My sincere condolences to the Pell Family as we celebrate the many accomplishments of this remarkably talented and caring woman who has left her mark throughout our state.”

At the time of his 80th birthday party, the eccentric Claiborne Pell was battling Parkinson’s disease and described in a biography by G. Wayne Miller as often “less than festive.” But Miller quoted from an opinion piece by former Rhode Island Gov. Bruce Sundlun about that evening.

“As his party drew to a close …  Senator Pell walked himself to the fireplace and made a short speech. He thanked everyone for being present, and in particular he thanked Nuala as his wife for 54 years. He said that she was in his dreams practically every night. He acknowledged the love and support she had given him throughout their lives together, and he thanked her for being the most important influence in his life,” Sundlun wrote. “Everybody present realized the emotion with which the senator made his short speech.”

Miller said in the book that Nuala Pell called him after her husband’s death, offering access to his personal records for the biography. Miller also wrote the obituary of Nuala Pell for the Providence Journal.

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