Posted: Feb. 7, 2005
GOV. ELBERT N. CARVEL, 1910-2005
By Celia Cohen
Elbert N. Carvel, a two-term governor who stood as tall in life as he did in Delaware history and loved this state with all of his great heart, died Sunday after an illness, three days shy of his 95th birthday.
With a winning, sparkling style that let him make his way as a liberal Democrat from a conservative downstate base in Sussex County, Carvel served an unusual split tenure, elected to his first term in 1948 in the surge of optimism after World War II and to his second term in 1960 in the burst of energy that accompanied John F. Kennedy to the White House.
He was called "Big Bert," and he was a presence, standing six and a half feet tall with eyes that twinkled with the delight of a crowd and a voice that sounded like a husky foghorn, penetrating and unforgettable and perfect for giving a speech or delivering a mischievous punchline.
His political skills made him only the second Democrat elected governor in the 20th Century and the first Democrat ever to win two terms, the last one in a comeback eight years after he had been voted out of office and sent home to his beloved Laurel.
Carvel came out of an era of Adlai Stevenson, Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, all men he knew, and he became one of Delaware's leading political figures of the 20th Century.
Carvel was a fearless politician, that rare breed, and he pressed the state to go in directions it did not necessarily want to go. In the 1960s he opposed the death penalty and favored a public accommodations law, civil rights era legislation that opened public places like restaurants and hotels to all, including African-Americans. He paid for it politically and personally.
"He was truly a statesman and truly a Delawarean," said state Senate President Pro Tem Thurman G. Adams Jr., a Bridgeville Democrat who went back more than 50 years with Carvel, from the time Adams went to work for Carvel's fertilizer company in 1949.
"He was a person who believed in his own convictions. He made some difficult decisions when he was governor when it would have been a lot easier to go with the tide. He was a special guy. He will go down as one of our greatest governors," Adams said.
Carvel was a transformational figure from the time he entered politics, back in a day when Delaware was largely a Republican enclave.
The Democrats put Carvel on their ticket for lieutenant governor in 1944 because he had made a name for himself serving on a grand jury investigating voter fraud in the 1940 election. His victory put him in position to run for governor in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II, when the state and the nation as a whole were ready to try something new. Delaware made him the first of his party to win the governorship in 32 years.
Carvel was ready to try new things himself, and in that term he became the father of the modern state Supreme Court. At the time, legal appeals were decided by a makeshift court of "leftover judges," a panel rounded up from judges who had not been involved in the case on the lower courts. The system carried a whiff of cronyism and was threatening Delaware's growing stature as the home of corporate litigation.
Carvel and some of the state's most influential lawyers persuaded the legislature to approve a constitutional amendment setting up a separate Supreme Court of three justices, later expanded to five. It convened in 1951, ending Delaware's status as the only state without an independent high court.
By 1952, when Carvel faced re-election, the country was trending Republican with Dwight David Eisenhower running for president. Delaware returned to its own Republican tendencies, and Carvel was out, defeated by J. Caleb Boggs, one of the state's most popular politicians who served as a congressman, governor and senator from 1947 to 1973.
Carvel was not discouraged. He waited out Boggs' two terms, along the way making an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 1958, and got himself elected governor again in 1960.
It was an emotional tenure, marked by ferocious debate over the death penalty and civil rights.
Delaware did not have capital punishment on the books at the time, and Carvel stood firm against it even after a husband and wife, elderly neighbors of his in Laurel, were murdered and the legislature passed a death-penalty bill. He vetoed it but was overridden.
Carvel also got out in front to push for public accommodations legislation. In the searing weeks after President Kennedy was shot and civil rights issues had momentum, Carvel worked hard to round up the votes, and he made sure those votes were delivered.
He caught a state senator, a Dagsboro Democrat, trying to sneak away as the roll was about to be called and demanded to know where he was going. The senator protested that his district would hang him if he voted for the bill.
"Hang and be damned!" Carvel ordered, and the senator voted as he was told.
Carvel's stands on the death penalty and public accommodations cost him votes and cost him customers at his fertilizer business. He lost his next and final election, another U.S. Senate bid in 1964.
Still, Carvel was not finished with politics. He was a fixture at Return Day and Democratic dinners, where his speeches put his good-natured humor on display. When he spotted upstaters at downstate gatherings, he thanked them for coming, his husky voice trilling, "As we all know, it's twice as faaarrr from Willl-mington to Sea-fooord as it is from Sea-fooord to Willl-mington!"
Carvel nearly made a cameo appearance on the ballot in 1996. Delaware was feuding about the date of its presidential primary with New Hampshire, which holds the first one and did not want Delaware to vote too closely behind.
Major candidates, including President Clinton, were siding with New Hampshire and refusing to sign up for Delaware's primary, and desperate Delaware Democrats drafted Carvel, then 86, as a favorite son. Eventually the state's political leadership came up with a new law to put the major candidates on the ballot, whether they wanted to be there or not, and Carvel returned to retirement.
Carvel's last major public appearance was in August at Farm & Home Field Day, an agricultural and political gathering at the University of Delaware's Research and Education Center outside Georgetown.
He was there for the university to announce a new building, to be called the "Carvel Education Center," a $7.6-million project partially financed with a gift of $2 million from Carvel himself.
Carvel was not up to giving a speech, but he waved and smiled, the old political spark still in his eyes, and he posed for a picture with Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle and Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., all lieutenant governors who made governor or would like to.
Carvel was not from here. He was born on Long Island, the home of his mother's family, although he gave the impression when he was breaking into politics that he was from Maryland, where the Carvels lived. In those days New York was too foreign for Delaware, but Maryland was acceptable.
In any case, he loved this state and wore his devotion unashamedly on his sleeve. It was never more obvious than at Christmastime 2002, when Thurman Adams, the state senator who was his old friend, went to visit him.
Adams entertained Carvel by reminding him of stories from days gone by. Carvel nodded at favorite memories until he could contain himself no longer. If he could not hold a conversation, he could do something else.
Carvel sang. In that haunting and husky voice of his, he sang the chorus from "Our Delaware," the state song, and its ending:
"Oh, our Delaware! Our beloved Delaware,
"Here's the loyal son that pledges/Faith to good old Delaware."
That was Carvel's song. That was Carvel's life.