Posted: March 12, 2005
"BERT CARVEL WAS A GREAT ONE"
By Celia Cohen
The church bell tolled on Friday afternoon atop the red brick of Saint Philip's Episcopal Church in Laurel, and the rain that was predicted held off as it should. Delaware was saying good-bye to a governor.
What a governor it was, too. Elbert Nostrand Carvel, Laurel's favorite son who was twice governor from 1949-1953 and 1961-1965, was as memorable as they come.
His frame at six-foot-six was as presidential as Abraham Lincoln's. His hairstyle, if it could be called that, was as all-American as Benjamin Franklin's, bald as an eagle on top with a thatch of whitening fringe at the circumference. His husky, trilling speech was, in the words of his law school yearbook, the voice of Daniel Webster. His eyes twinkled like St. Nicholas after he slid down the chimney.
He was called "Big Bert" Carvel, but it was not just for his size but for what he did. Despite his base in conservative Sussex County, he was a liberal Democrat who stood against segregation and the death penalty, even though it cost him friends, business at his family fertilizer company and perhaps even a U.S. Senate seat that he ran for twice but never won.
Carvel died on Feb. 6, three days away from his 95th birthday. His memorial service Friday drew the best lineup that Delaware could offer -- Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., U.S. Sen. Thomas R. Carper and U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle.
Minner, Biden and Carper, the three Democrats, gave the eulogies in the church where about 200 people, most of them Carvel's family and friends from Laurel, gathered for the tribute.
Minner, the first governor of the 21st Century, called Carvel the best governor of the 20th Century. Biden, whose only statewide office has been the Senate, also called Carvel the greatest governor of the 20th Century. Carper, who was governor from 1993-2001, somehow skipped that point.
"Bert Carvel was a great one," Minner said. "He had the ability and the courage and the will to do the right thing."
Carvel, however, was even more than that. He was an emblem of the small-state politics that makes Delaware what it is. What the speakers also remembered about him was how he treated them when they were, well, nobody.
It is how the state works. "The government is very close to the people, and should I say, the people are very close to the government," Minner said. "That is the very best government we can have. . . . That familiarity, that being there and being available means it's harder, but there was one among us who was great, and he did it with such flair."
Minner knew Carvel best. As a 17-year-old, she worked as a Democratic aide, and one of her jobs was to collate the state budget the old-fashioned way -- walking around a table where the pages were laid out, picking them up one by one and time after time.
She was at it one morning in the governor's office when Carvel came in. He said, "Good morning, girlie." Later he was surprised to see her there when he went out to lunch, when he came back and when he left at the end of the day.
"He said, 'Girlie, are you going to be there in the morning?'" Minner said. "He had time for everyone."
Biden's first encounter with Carvel was as a young lawyer. He was a member of a Democratic club that met in Wilmington, and one day he was asked to telephone Carvel, who recently had completed his second term, and invite him to speak.
"I can't pick up the phone and call the governor. I was scared to death. I thought it was so inappropriate for me, a 27-year-old kid," Biden said.
Biden did call, speaking fast and stumbling over his words as he tried to be hyper-polite, until Carvel told him to slow down and say what he wanted. Carvel put him at ease, saying, "Yeh, I'll come."
Carper was a 27-year-old driver for James R. Soles, a University of Delaware political science professor running as a Democrat for the Congress, when he first saw Carvel in 1974.
Carper had driven Soles to Washington on a fund-raising trip, and on their way back, they stopped in Maryland at Kent Island, where Carvel and his wife Ann Hall Valliant Carvel owned "Crafford," a farm they had in addition to their house in Laurel.
"My first thought is, this guy is huge," Carper said. The contrast was particularly great, because the candidate that Carper was driving stood about five-foot-one.
Carper was witness to what had to be one of the greatest visuals ever in Delaware politics -- Carvel reaching down to put his arm around Jim Soles to walk with him.
As Minner, Biden and Carper ascended to the heights of Delaware politics, Carvel was there to watch and hand out advice. Biden said Carvel still was calling him three or four times a year until about 18 months ago.
You could take Carvel out of politics, but you could not take the politics out of Carvel. Even as he failed toward the end of his life, his granddaughter Daphne Soroka said Carvel still was determined to do his part.
The last time he left his house was Nov. 2. In his final public act, Big Bert Carvel went to vote.