Posted: Oct. 15, 2004
GEORGE JARVIS, LAWMAKER AND CABINET OFFICER, 1927-2004
By Celia Cohen
George Jarvis, a Newark legislator and state Cabinet secretary who played politics with the best when it was a merry medley of of high spirits and high jinks, died Friday morning after a lengthy illness at the age of 77.
He was one of the liveliest of politicians, a very funny man who often buried his humor under a crusty and disputatious tone, an officeholder who understood that a public life could do public good -- but was even better with a little mischief thrown in.
Jarvis did not hold elective office very long. He spent six years in the Delaware General Assembly as a state representative and senator from 1968 to 1974 but stayed in and around government first as a transportation secretary for Gov. Pierre S. du Pont in the late 1970s and then as a lobbyist for Delmarva Power, now Conectiv, until his retirement in 1993.
"We were both elected in 1968. We were freshman legislators together, and he was full of it. He wasn't scared to talk to anybody and tell them what he thought," du Pont said.
Jarvis was one of a kind when it was the right time to be that way, when politics pulsed with characters. He was a Republican when it was the right time to be a Delaware Republican, when his party swept into power with grand ideas for redesigning the state in a more modern image.
The late Sixties and early Seventies were the rise of suburbia, the expansion of influence by the rapidly-growing New Castle County at the expense of rural Kent County and Sussex County downstate, which previously dominated the state.
When Jarvis was elected, it was a huge Republican year in Delaware. The party won every statewide office -- governor, lieutenant governor, U.S. representative, treasurer and auditor -- carried the state for Richard M. Nixon for president and controlled the legislature by a 2-1 margin over the Democrats.
The best for the Republicans was having a governor. Russell W. Peterson ousted Charles L. Terry Jr., the Democratic incumbent. Later Peterson would fall on hard times over a budget deficit (and later still would become a Democrat), but it those early days the Republicans made their mark.
Many of them -- Peterson and Jarvis included -- came out of the DuPont Co. at a time when the business encouraged it. They set up a modern Cabinet. They enacted a Coastal Zone Act to protect Delaware's shores. They pushed civil rights legislation.
Jarvis was squarely in the middle of it. He was part of a band of six Republican representatives who called themselves the "Parking Lot Gang." It was a smart-alecky name for a group that believed in speaking wisecracks to power.
They invented themselves and their name after some Democrats held a press conference north of Wilmington at a hotel owned by Democratic State Chairman Henry Topel. The Republicans countered by scheduling an answering press conference at a Wilmington parking lot owned by Republican State Chairman Clayton S. Harrison Jr.
Jarvis was a presence in politics. In 1976 he signed on to be the campaign chairman for Thomas B. Evans Jr., a Republican who would be elected to the Congress that year. For some reason lost to time, Jarvis got fed up and wanted out, and it fell to Priscilla B. Rakestraw, newly installed as the Republican national committeewoman, to talk Jarvis out of quitting.
Rakestraw enlisted William G. Campbell, a Republican lawyer, to help. Jarvis and Campbell met her at a grade school where she was speaking and sat on the student-sized chairs while she talked. Then they went to Rakestraw's house in Newark, and she brought out a Jamaican liqueur called Ramona.
For the next six hours they drank and they talked, and they talked and they drank. They never bothered with food, and by the time they were finished, they had stopped bothering with glasses.
"To end the story, the crisis was over. George agreed to stay on the campaign. Ramona and Rakestraw won out. I'm not sure who was the more persuasive," Rakestraw quipped. "I still have that bottle. I never tossed it."
As much as Jarvis was known for his politics, he also was known for his love of golf. He took numerous golfing trips, but the moment that stood out during one of them had nothing to do with the game.
Jarvis was at a southern golf resort with John S. Riley, the public relations director for Hercules Inc. The two met through Republican politics but became personal friends.
On this particular trip, service at the resort's dining room was excruciatingly slow, and patrons were waiting a long time for seating. One man who obviously had been drinking was being belligerent with a young hostess. Jarvis blew past Riley and grabbed him.
"He said, 'Buddy, that lady told you she would seat you in a minute. Now be quiet. I don't want to hear from you again!' Everything got peaceful, and there was not another peep out of this guy," Riley said.
"George always told it like it was. It was totally unvarnished. He never could have made it as a spin doctor."
Jarvis understood politics to its core. As a member of the Parking Lot Gang, he was part of a faction that decided to overthrow a Republican speaker of the House of Representatives. The party leadership was aghast.
Donald R. Kirtley, the New Castle County Republican chairman, called Jarvis and demanded to know the reason for the rebellion.
"Because," Jarvis said, "we got the votes."