IN REMEMBRANCE: 10-14-2012

ARLEN SPECTER, FORMER SENATOR

 

J.Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

Sen. Arlen Specter, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, swore in Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. at the start of his 2006 Supreme Court confirmation hearing. More Photos »

By

Published: October 14, 2012

  • WASHINGTON — Arlen Specter, the irascible senator from Pennsylvania who was at the center of many of the Senate’s most divisive legal battles — from the Supreme Court nominations of Robert H. Bork and Clarence Thomas to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton — only to lose his seat in 2010 after quitting the Republican Party to become a Democrat, died Sunday morning at his home in Philadelphia. He was 82.

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Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

Mr. Specter was Pennsylvania’s longest-serving senator.                            More Photos »

The cause was complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, his son Shanin said. Mr. Specter had previously fought Hodgkin’s disease and survived a brain tumor and heart bypass surgery.

Hard-edged and tenacious yet ever the centrist, Mr. Specter was a part of American public life for more than four decades. As an ambitious young lawyer for the Warren Commission, he took credit for originating the theory that a single bullet, fired by a lone gunman, struck both President John F. Kennedy and Gov. John B. Connally of Texas. Seconds later, Kennedy was struck by a fatal shot to the head from the same gunman, the commission found.

In the Senate, where he was long regarded as its sharpest legal mind, he led the Judiciary Committee through a tumultuous period that included two Supreme Court confirmations, even while battling Hodgkin’s disease in 2005 and losing his hair to chemotherapy.

Yet he may be remembered best for his quixotic party switch in 2009 and the subsequent campaign that cost him the Senate seat he had held for almost 30 years. After 44 years as a Republican, Mr. Specter, who began his career as a Democrat, changed sides because he feared a challenge from the right. He wound up losing in a Democratic primary; the seat stayed in Republican hands.

“Arlen Specter was always a fighter,” President Obama said in a statement issued Sunday, calling Mr. Specter “fiercely independent” and citing his “toughness and determination” in dealing with his personal health struggles.

One of the few remaining Republican moderates on Capitol Hill at a time when the party had turned sharply to the right, Mr. Specter confounded fellow Republicans at every turn. He unabashedly supported Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal, and championed biomedical and embryonic stem cell research long before he received his cancer diagnosis.

When he made a bid for the White House in 1995, he denounced the Christian right as an extremist “fringe” — an unorthodox tactic for a candidate trying to win votes in a Republican primary. The campaign was short-lived; Mr. Specter ended it when he ran out of cash. Years later, he said wryly of the other candidates, “I was the only one of nine people in New Hampshire who wanted to keep the Department of Education.”

He enjoyed a good martini and a fast game of squash, and he was famous for parsing his words to wiggle out of tight spots. During Mr. Clinton’s impeachment on charges of perjury and obstruction, Mr. Specter, objecting to what he called a “sham trial” without witnesses, signaled that he would vote to acquit.

But a simple “not guilty” vote would have put him directly at odds with Republicans; instead, citing Scottish law, Mr. Specter voted “not proven,” adding, “therefore not guilty.”

He relished the decades he spent on the Judiciary Committee. He enraged conservatives in 1987 by helping to derail Judge Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court and then delighted them four years later by backing Justice Thomas. The Thomas confirmation nearly cost Mr. Specter his Senate seat; even now, millions of American women remain furious with him for his aggressive questioning of Anita F. Hill, a law professor who had accused Justice Thomas of sexual harassment when they worked together at the Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

If he had any regrets, Mr. Specter rarely admitted them.

“I’ve gone back and looked at every frame of the videos on Professor Hill, and I did not ask her one unprofessional question,” he said in a 2004 interview with The New York Times. Of the Bork and Thomas confirmations, he said, “I may be wrong, but I’m satisfied with what I did in both those cases.”

Brash confidence and outsize ego were characteristic of Mr. Specter, a man so feared by his own aides and so brusque with colleagues that he earned the nickname Snarlin’ Arlen on Capitol Hill. In 1992, when Mr. Specter’s Senate seat was in danger after the Thomas hearings, Paul Weyrich, a founding father of the modern conservative movement, campaigned for him. His rationale was expressed in a statement he made to fellow conservatives, as quoted by the conservative magazine National Review.

“Arlen Specter is a jerk,” he was said to have remarked, “but he’s our jerk.”

Those close to Mr. Specter say there was a softer side to him, but no one denied that as a lawmaker he was all business, with little patience for the false pleasantries of politics.

G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., who followed Mr. Specter’s career, once described how the senator would conduct constituent meetings: “He’ll say, ‘I’m delighted to be here,’ and give his standard 10- or 15-minute opening. Then he’ll say, ‘I’ll take questions now; whoever has a question, put up their hands.’ He will count the hands — 1, 2, 3, 4, to 20. And when 20 is over, he’s out of there.”

Arlen Specter was born on Feb. 12, 1930, in Wichita, Kan., the fourth and youngest child of Harry and Lillian Specter. Harry Specter, a Jewish émigré from the Ukraine, then part of Russia, moved his family back and forth between the East Coast and the Midwest seeking work before settling in Kansas as a peddler. By the time Arlen was 5, he too was peddling, selling cantaloupes door to door by his father’s side.

When scrap metal became salable during World War II, the Specters moved to the small Kansas town of Russell, coincidentally the hometown of another person who would become a prominent Republican senator, Bob Dole. There, the elder Specter opened a junkyard; when tornadoes blew through, he sent his son into the oil fields with a torch to cut up the toppled derricks.

Carl Feldbaum, a friend and a former chief of staff to the senator, traced Mr. Specter’s gruffness to those days.

“There’s a hard-bitten quality that came out of being an immigrant,” Mr. Feldbaum said, “of being the only Jewish family in a small Midwestern town and living through the Depression, war era.”

The Specters later moved to Philadelphia — “so my sister could meet and marry a nice Jewish boy,” Mr. Specter explained — where he enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1951, served in the Air Force and then earned a law degree from Yale in 1956. By 1959, he was an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia, prosecuting union racketeers and attracting the attention of some leaders in Washington.

His parents were Democrats, and so was he, until he tried to run for Philadelphia district attorney in 1965. As Mr. Specter recalled, the local Democratic chairman told him that the party did not want a “young Tom Dewey as D.A.,” a reference to the former New York governor and racket-buster Thomas E. Dewey, a Republican. So Mr. Specter ran on the Republican ticket as a Democrat. He switched his party registration after he won.

Thus began what Mr. Specter liked to call “the continuing effort I have made to pull the Republican Party to the center.”

He won his first election to the Senate in 1980 and, as he recounted in his 2000 autobiography, “Passion for Truth,” immediately began courting Senator Strom Thurmond, the deeply conservative South Carolina Republican who was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, seeking a seat on the panel.

In the Senate, Mr. Specter, putting his prosecutor’s skills to use, was a relentless interrogator in judicial confirmations. Tom Korologos, a former ambassador and a lobbyist who was often called upon by Republican presidents to shepherd their nominees through the Senate, said that no matter how much information a nominee provided, Mr. Specter wanted more — “the Ph.D. treatment,” in Mr. Korologos’s words.

Never was that more true than during the Bork hearings.

“Bork, I have said many times, was the Einstein of the law,” Mr. Korologos said, “and Specter was the Einstein of the Senate, and they used to talk past each other like two trains. Specter would ask these long, convoluted questions, and Bork would give these long, convoluted answers.”

The Senate rejected the nomination, and conservatives never forgave Mr. Specter. Judge Bork, in an interview with The Times in 2004, called him “generally a bit shifty.” Likewise, women’s groups, who had considered Mr. Specter an ally, never forgave him for accusing Ms. Hill of perjury. Ultimately, Mr. Specter expressed contrition, saying he had come to understand why Ms. Hill’s complaint of sexual harassment had “touched a raw nerve among so many women.”

But the remark, coming in 1992 when Mr. Specter was facing a tough re-election campaign, rang hollow with his critics and even some admirers, who said it was another example of how he did whatever it took to save his political career.

“He would always seem to walk up to the edge, the abyss politically, and find a way to extricate himself from the problem,” Professor Madonna said. “He could pull the rabbits out of more hats.”

But the rabbit-pulling came to an abrupt end in 2010 for Mr. Specter, the longest-serving senator in Pennsylvania history. The year before, as the Tea Party gained strength, Mr. Specter candidly declared his Republican-to-Democrat conversion a matter of political survival.

“I am not prepared to have my 29-year record in the United States Senate decided by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate — not prepared to have that record decided by that jury,” he said.

Republicans were knocked off stride; many had no warning from Mr. Specter. At first, it seemed that he might have an easy ride to the Democratic nomination. But even with the endorsement of Mr. Obama, he failed to attract support from Democrats. Many were annoyed by the alliance he had forged years earlier with another Pennsylvania senator, the conservative Republican Rick Santorum.

Mr. Specter lost his primary race with just 46 percent of the vote — an outcome that left him looking drained and shocked. In a memoir published last year, “Life Among the Cannibals,” he denounced the partisanship that has enveloped Washington.

“The fringes have displaced tolerance with purity tests,” he wrote.

Besides his son Shanin, Mr. Specter is survived by his wife of 59 years, Joan; a sister, Shirley Kety; another son, Stephen; and four grandchildren.

Though Mr. Specter was known mostly for his contributions to domestic policy — along with Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, he successfully fought to double the budget of the National Institutes of Health for medical research during the Clinton years — he dipped into foreign policy as well. Mr. Feldbaum, Mr. Specter’s former chief of staff, recalled a trip they made to Baghdad in 1990 to meet Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Specter took a camera along — “out of caution, he wanted us to have our own pictures,” Mr. Feldbaum said — but palace guards wrested it out of Mr. Feldbaum’s hands. When Mr. Hussein arrived, the senator demanded his camera back.

“It wasn’t the camera; it was the principle,” Mr. Feldbaum said. “It wasn’t only that he was a United States senator and a representative of the United States of America. He was Arlen Specter.”

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GARY COLLINS, HOST OF MISS AMERICA PAGEANT

By

Published: October 13, 2012

  • Gary Collins, a prolific actor who became a successful host of daytime talk shows and — for almost a decade — master of ceremonies for the Miss America pageant, died on Saturday in Biloxi, Miss. He was 74.

Phil Mccarten/Getty Images

In a performing career that spanned more than four decades, Gary Collins made guest appearances on dozens of television shows, including “Charlie’s Angels” and “JAG.”

Mr. Collins died of natural causes, Brian Switzer, the Harrison County deputy coroner, said.

In a performing career that spanned more than four decades, Mr. Collins made guest appearances on dozens of television shows, including “The Virginian,” “Love, American Style,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “JAG.”

Mr. Collins became a familiar face in American living rooms in the 1980s as the congenial host of the syndicated afternoon talk show “Hour Magazine,” for which he won a daytime Emmy in 1983, and later, as the host of the Miss America Pageant from 1982 to 1990.

From 1989 to 1994, he was the host of another daytime talk show, “The Home Show,” on ABC.

Born in Venice, Calif., on April 30, 1938, Mr. Collins became interested in acting while in the Army, where he performed on the Armed Forces Network.

He had his first break in 1965 with a supporting role on the NBC series “The Wackiest Ship in the Army,” with Jack Warden. He appeared with Dale Robertson in the 1966-68 series “Iron Horse,” and in 1972 he starred in “The Sixth Sense,” a series in which he played a parapsychologist.

In 1974, he starred in a short-lived TV version of “Born Free.”

In 1967, he married Mary Ann Mobley, Miss America of 1959. The couple separated last year.

Besides his wife, survivors include their daughter, Marcy Clancy Collins; and two children from his first marriage, to Susan Peterson, Guy and Melissa Collins.

In recent years, Mr. Collins, a resident of Biloxi, had legal troubles, including convictions for drunken driving and leaving the scene of a traffic accident.

With a cheerful smile and good looks, Mr. Collins was known for his warm, welcoming style.

In an interview with The Los Angeles Times in 1989, he said he was unsuited for the tabloid talk-show format that was emerging: “That’s basically not a part of my character.”

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ANDREW BRIMMER, FIRST BLACK MEMBER ON FED BOARD

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Published: October 12, 2012

  • Andrew F. Brimmer, a Louisiana sharecropper’s son who was the first black member of the Federal Reserve Board and who led efforts to to reverse the country’s balance-of-payments deficit, died on Sunday in Washington. He was 86.

William E. Sauro/The New York Times

Andrew F. Brimmer in 1974, shortly after he resigned from the Fed board.

His death, after a long illness, was confirmed by his daughter, Esther Brimmer.

Dr. Brimmer, an economist, held a number of high-ranking posts in Washington and taught at Harvard, but the economic conditions of poor, powerless, uneducated blacks was an abiding concern. He spoke about what he called the “schism” between blacks who were educated and had marketable skills and those who did not. In later years he spoke frequently about how government policies no longer supported programs to help blacks enter the economic mainstream.

Dr. Brimmer was the assistant secretary of commerce for economic affairs when President Lyndon B. Johnson named him to the Fed board in 1966.

At the time, the Federal Reserve was bitterly divided over monetary policy. The chairman, William McChesney Martin Jr., threatened to resign if Mr. Johnson appointed a liberal who would vote in favor of lower interest rates.

At Dr. Brimmer’s swearing-in ceremony, the president said he did not expect Dr. Brimmer to be “an easy money man or a tight money man.” Rather, Mr. Johnson said, “I expect him to be a right money man.”

The Wall Street Journal expressed skepticism, with a front-page article headlined “Desire to Aid Negroes Could Make New ‘Fed’ Member More Liberal.” It quoted an anonymous source saying that the appointment was yet another example of Mr. Johnson’s political foxiness. “The president has Martin in a box,” the source told The Journal. “If Martin resigned now, it would look like it was because he didn’t want a Negro on the board.”

Early in his tenure, Dr. Brimmer followed the lead of Mr. Martin and other “tight money” board members by supporting a gradual increase in interest rates to fight inflation. But when Congress raised taxes in 1968 and cut spending to cut inflation, he was one of the first Fed governors to call for lowering rates.

At the Commerce Department, Dr. Brimmer’s primary responsibility was to reverse the country’s balance-of-payments deficit. He spent a good deal of time persuading American businesses to voluntarily slow their use of dollars in foreign investments. He also encouraged foreign companies to use their own currency to make investments in the United States.

In a speech in December 1965, he reported that his efforts had resulted in a drop in direct American investments overseas, to $515 million in the third quarter of that year from $1.12 billion in the first quarter.

That work built on his interest in foreign affairs, which started when he went to India with the Fulbright Program and wrote papers on the Indian economy.

As a staff economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in the late 1950s, he was part of a team that visited Sudan to explore the feasibility of a central bank there. He later wrote an article on banking and finance in Sudan for The South African Journal of Economics. He became known as the international monetary policy expert on the Federal Reserve Board.

Dr. Brimmer served a little more than eight years of his 14-year term, leaving the board in 1974 to join the faculty of the Harvard Business School and start a consulting firm, Brimmer & Company. His academic career also included study in India at the Delhi School of Economics and the University of Bombay.

In 1995, he was chosen to head a five-member financial control board to help the District of Columbia deal with a financial crisis. He stepped down after a contentious three years in the job.

Andrew Felton Brimmer Jr. was born on Sept. 13, 1926, in Newellton, La. After graduating from high school he went to Washington State, where one of his sisters lived. He joined the Army near the end of World War II and attained the rank of staff sergeant, remaining in the United States.

Besides his daughter, who is the assistant secretary for international organization affairs at the State Department, he is survived by his wife, Doris Scott Brimmer.

Dr. Brimmer attended the University of Washington in Seattle on the G.I. Bill of Rights, earning an undergraduate degree in economics in 1950 and a master’s degree the next year.

He then went to India before attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, where he earned a doctorate. In 1965, Dr. Brimmer was part of a federal delegation sent to Los Angeles after rioting in the Watts neighborhood left 34 people dead and tens of millions of dollars in property damage. He commissioned a Census Bureau study that found that the purchasing power of the average family in Watts had declined by $400 in the five years before the riots while incomes had risen in the rest of America.

“I do feel that the economic plight of blacks is a serious matter,” he told The New York Times in 1973. “So I bring the same economist’s tool kit to that subject as other economists bring to examine other national economic problems.”

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BARBARA BLUM, WHO RESCUED ABUSED WILLOWBROOK RESIDENTS

By

Published: October 10, 2012

  • Barbara Blum, a former high-ranking social services official who found homes for hundreds of mentally disabled people after their mistreatment at the Willowbrook State School on Staten Island became a national scandal in the 1970s, died on Saturday in Albany. She was 82.

Vic DeLucia/The New York Times

Barbara Blum

The cause was congestive heart failure, her son Thomas said.

Ms. Blum was New York State’s social services commissioner from 1977 to 1982, and she earlier worked for Mayor John V. Lindsay’s administration, leading a task force on mental health and retardation and overseeing services for disadvantaged children. But perhaps her most visible impact was made in rescuing abused Willowbrook residents by finding them safe places to live in group homes.

The deplorable conditions at Willowbrook, a state-run institution, seized the nation’s attention in 1972, when Geraldo Rivera, then a reporter for WABC-TV in New York, put a spotlight on them, showing children lying naked on the floor, their bodies contorted, their feces spread on walls. His reports were broadcast nationally. More than 5,400 people lived on the Willowbrook campus, making it the biggest state-run institution for mentally disabled people in the United States.

Willowbrook residents and their parents, aided by civil libertarians and mental health advocates, sued New York State to prevent further deterioration and to establish that residents had a constitutional right to treatment. The state settled with the plaintiffs and signed a court decree in April 1975 promising to improve conditions at Willowbrook and to transfer residents to new homes.

Ms. Blum, a state social services official at the time, was placed in charge of the Metropolitan Placement Unit, set up to find homes for the residents in what would be, at the time, the largest placement of mentally disabled people in the nation’s history. The decree ordering the “deinstitutionalization,” which had become a national trend, called for all but 250 of the residents to be placed in group homes or foster care by 1981.

The task promised to be daunting. There were no community organizations trained in performing such a transfer, and many established social services groups refused to participate, doubting that the task could be done at all, much less on time.

Others had turned down the job, and Ms. Blum later expressed suspicion that Gov. Hugh L. Carey’s aides had chosen her to lead the unit, a largely autonomous body, so that she would be the scapegoat if the effort failed.

“There seemed to be a kind of precipitous desire to see that I was there for the court,” she said in an interview for the 1984 book “The Willowbrook Wars,” by David and Sheila Rothman.

As it happened, logistical and legal difficulties delayed the emptying of Willowbrook until 1987. But working with Roman Catholic and black community organizations, Ms. Blum found more than 100 homes for more than 1,000 Willowbrook residents despite meeting intense opposition in neighborhoods; in some instances, she was pelted with eggs, and her nose was broken.

To Ms. Blum, the assignment was also a personal mission. Her second son, Jonathan, was profoundly affected by autism.

Barbara Jean Rebecca Bennett was born on Jan. 18, 1930, in Beaver, Pa. She graduated from Vassar College as a mathematics major. In 1951, she married Robert M. Blum, who survives her. In addition to her sons Thomas and Jonathan, she is also survived by her son Stephen; a daughter, Jennifer Weinschenk; and five grandchildren.

Robert Blum, a former Olympic fencer, became an aide to Mr. Lindsay, first in Congress and then at City Hall. Mr. Blum frequently told Mr. Lindsay how hard it was to find help for Jonathan. He and his wife had banded together with other parents to start their own nursery school and an organization to lobby for mentally disabled people. One of the mayor’s first official acts was to appoint Ms. Blum to the New York City Community Mental Health Board.

She went on to a number of city government posts, including as deputy commissioner for mental health and mental retardation services, commissioner for special services to children and director of a council on child welfare that encompassed 50 city agencies.

In 1973, she was named assistant executive director of the state’s social welfare board. In 1975, she was given the additional job of heading the Metropolitan Placement Unit. In 1977, Governor Carey appointed her commissioner of the State Department of Social Services.

In later years, among other positions, she was a senior fellow at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

Six years after the last residents left Willowbrook, its buildings became a campus of the College of Staten Island.

Jonathan Blum has lived for years in a group home in Brooklyn, where, his brother Thomas said, he has achieved a regular schedule of walks, exercise and going to the store to buy a soda.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 12, 2012

An earlier version of this obituary mistakenly referred to Robert M. Blum as Robert R. Blum. The article also misstated where Jonathan Blum has lived for years in a group home. It is Brooklyn, not the Bronx.

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ERIC LOMAX, RIVER KWAI PRISONER WHO FORGAVE

 

Micool Brooke/Associated Press

Eric Lomax, left, in 1998 with Nagase Takashi, his chief wartime tormentor. The two met again at the River Kwai, Thailand.

By

Published: October 9, 2012

  • Eric Lomax, a former British soldier who was tortured by the Japanese while he was a prisoner during World War II and half a century later forgave one of his tormentors — an experience he recounted in a memoir, “The Railway Man” — died on Monday in Berwick-upon-Tweed, England. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by his publisher, Vintage Books.

Mr. Lomax, who was born in Scotland, was 19 when he joined the Royal Corps of Signals in 1939. He was one of thousands of British soldiers who surrendered to the Japanese in Singapore in 1942. Many were relocated to Thailand and forced to build the Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway.

The building of the railroad and the brutality involved was portrayed in “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” the 1957 film directed by David Lean.

Mr. Lomax was repeatedly beaten and interrogated after his captors found a radio receiver he had made from spare parts. Multiple bones were broken and water was poured into his nose and mouth. One of his constant torturers stood out: Nagase Takashi, an interpreter.

“At the end of the war, I would have been happy to murder him,” Mr. Lomax told The New York Times in 1995, shortly after the “The Railway Man” was published and became a best seller.

In the book, Mr. Lomax described having fantasies about meeting Mr. Nagase one day and how he had spent much of the 1980s looking for information about him. He learned that after the war Mr. Nagase had become an interpreter for the Allies and helped locate thousands of graves and mass burial sites along the Burma Railway.

The men finally met in 1993, after Mr. Lomax had read an article about Mr. Nagase’s being devastated by guilt over his treatment of one particular British soldier. Mr. Lomax realized that he was that soldier.

“When we met, Nagase greeted me with a formal bow,” Mr. Lomax said on the Web site of the Forgiveness Project, a British group that seeks to bring together victims and perpetrators of crimes. “I took his hand and said in Japanese, ‘Good morning, Mr. Nagase, how are you?’ He was trembling and crying, and he said over and over again: ‘I am so sorry, so very sorry.’ ”

Mr. Lomax continued: “I had come with no sympathy for this man, and yet Nagase, through his complete humility, turned this around. In the days that followed we spent a lot of time together, talking and laughing.” He added, “We promised to keep in touch and have remained friends ever since.”

Mr. Lomax told The Times said Mr. Nagase’s later life resembled his own. “He has had the same psychological and career problems that I have,” he said.

A film based on “The Railway Man,” starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman, is scheduled to be released next year.

Mr. Lomax was born in Edinburgh, graduated from Royal High School and took a job with the city’s postal service at 16, according to The Herald Scotland newspaper. After the war he enlisted in two more years of military service and rose to captain. He later studied personnel management and became a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde, in Scotland, even as his anger and bitterness created problems in his personal life.

Mr. Lomax is survived by his wife, Patti; a daughter from a previous marriage; and four stepchildren.

His search for Mr. Nagase began in earnest after he retired, in 1982. His wife, a nurse he married in the 1980s, wrote the first letter to Mr. Nagase on her husband’s behalf, and she helped arrange the 1993 meeting, which took place at the bridge on the Kwai.

“I haven’t forgiven Japan as a nation,” Mr. Lomax told The Times, “but I’ve forgiven one man, because he’s experienced such great personal regret.”

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MERVYN DYMALLY, WHO BROKE RACIAL BARRIERS IN CALIFORNIA

 

Lennox McLendon/Associated Press

Gov. Jerry Brown, left, with Mervyn M. Dymally, then lieutenant governor, in 1978. Mr. Dymally also served 12 years in Congress.

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Published: October 9, 2012

  • Mervyn M. Dymally, who broke barriers as a black lawmaker in California and in Congress after moving to the United States from his native Trinidad at age 19, died on Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 86.

He had been in hospice care, his daughter, Lynn V. Dymally, said.

Mr. Dymally became California’s first foreign-born black state assemblyman when he was elected in 1962, its first black state senator four years later and, in 1974, its first black lieutenant governor. In 1980 he became one of the first foreign-born blacks elected to the House of Representatives, where he served six terms representing Compton and other heavily black, low-income areas. He also led the Congressional Black Caucus for a time.

His success in winning office was rooted in his work organizing a new black Democratic base in areas around Los Angeles beginning in the 1950s and 1960s.

“This was a transformational period,” said Raphael J. Sonenshein, an expert in racial and ethnic politics in Los Angeles and the executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. “Between 1958 and 1962, the Democratic Party really came of age in the African-American community in California,” he said.

The area’s minority population had long been marginalized, but as the political climate changed, it created opportunities for new leaders like Mr. Dymally, Mr. Sonenshein said.

“If you came in from the outside and were able to put things together, it was fertile territory,” he said. “He was a very effective organizational leader.”

Mr. Dymally’s rise partly paralleled that of Tom Bradley, who became the first black mayor of Los Angeles. But Mr. Bradley built a coalition from a rising black economic class and liberal whites; Mr. Dymally, by contrast, galvanized poor and working-class residents and labor unions. He worked to improve health care for the poor and sponsored legislation to lower the state voting age to 18 and to expand civil rights protections for women. As lieutenant governor under Gov. Jerry Brown, Mr. Dymally joined Cesar Chavez in trying to protect farm workers from automation, which was taking away jobs.

Mr. Dymally was often trailed by accusations of corruption, including that he took bribes, but he never faced criminal charges. In 1978, he was defeated while seeking re-election as lieutenant governor after a television news report that he was going to be indicted. The indictment never happened, and two years later Mr. Dymally was elected to Congress after two other candidates had split the white vote in a Democratic primary.

In 2002, a decade after he retired from Congress, he was elected to fill the same Assembly seat he had won in 1962. He served three terms and lost a 2008 bid for State Senate.

Mervyn Malcolm Dymally was born May 12, 1926, in Bonasse Village in Cedros, Trinidad. His father was a Muslim of Indian descent. His mother was a Roman Catholic of mixed racial heritage. He eventually made it to Southern California, where he graduated from California State University, Los Angeles, and later earned master’s and doctoral degrees at other schools. He taught special education in Los Angeles schools before entering politics.

Besides his daughter, Lynn, he is survived by his wife of 44 years, the former Alice Gueno; his son, Mark; three sisters, Marjorie, Courtney and Hazel Dymally; two brothers, Bing and Malcolm; and three grandchildren. A marriage to Amentha Isaacs ended in divorce.

Lynn Dymally noted that even as her father embraced the struggles of American blacks, his own racial identity was complicated. She said that his marriage certificate to his first wife lists him as Indian, but that his race is described as “Negro” on her United States birth certificate.

Late in his life, as California became more diverse, he told his daughter, “You know, it’s strange, people are now referring to me as of Asian descent.”

Ms. Dymally added, “He always considered himself black or African-American even though there were distinctive qualities about him that would have made some people think he was Indian.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: October 10, 2012

An obituary on Tuesday about the California politician Mervyn M. Dymally erroneously attributed a distinction to him. While he was California’s first black state senator and first black lieutenant governor, he was not the state’s first black assemblyman. (Mr. Dymally, who was born in Trinidad, was California’s first foreign-born black state assemblyman, but there had been three other black members of the California Assembly before Mr. Dymally was elected in 1962.)

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