Charles H. Percy

Last updated

Charles H. Percy
Charles Percy.jpg
Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
In office
January 3, 1981 January 3, 1985
Preceded by Frank Church
Succeeded by Richard Lugar
United States Senator
from Illinois
In office
January 3, 1967 January 3, 1985
Preceded by Paul Douglas
Succeeded by Paul Simon
Personal details
Charles Harting Percy

(1919-09-27)September 27, 1919
Pensacola, Florida, U.S.
DiedSeptember 17, 2011(2011-09-17) (aged 91)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Resting place Oak Hill Cemetery
Political party Republican
  • Jeanne Valerie Dickerson
    (m. 1943;died 1947)
  • Loraine Diane Guyer(m. 1950)
Children5 (including Sharon)
Education University of Chicago (BA)
Military service
AllegianceFlag of the United States (1912-1959).svg  United States
Branch/serviceFlag of the United States Navy (official).svg  United States Navy
Years of service1943–1945
Rank US Navy O3 infobox.svg Lieutenant
Battles/wars World War II
[1] [2] [3]

Charles Harting "Chuck" Percy (September 27, 1919 – September 17, 2011) [4] was an American businessman and politician. He was president of the Bell & Howell Corporation from 1949 to 1964. In 1966, he was elected to the United States Senate from Illinois as a Republican; he served for three terms (18 years) until 1985, when he was defeated by Paul Simon. He was mentioned as a GOP presidential hopeful from 1968 through 1988. During his Senate career, Percy concentrated on business and foreign relations. [5]


Early life and education

Charles Harting Percy was born in Pensacola, the seat of Escambia County in far northwestern Florida, the son of Edward H. Percy and the former Elizabeth Harting. [6] His father, an Alabama native descended from illustrious colonial-era Mississippians and Virginians, was at various times an automobile salesman and bank cashier. His Illinois-born mother was a concert violinist. Edward was a son of Charles Brown Percy and Helen Leila Herndon of the powerful Herndon family of Virginia. [7] [8] Elizabeth Harting was a daughter of Phineas Fredrick Harting and Belle Aschenbach. [9]

The family moved to Chicago when Percy was an infant. As a child, he had entrepreneurial energy and held jobs while attending school. In the mid-1930s, his pluck brought him to the attention of his Sunday school teacher, Joseph McNabb, the president of Bell & Howell, then a small camera company.

Percy completed high school at New Trier High School. He entered the University of Chicago on a half tuition scholarship, and worked his way through college with several part-time jobs. He completed his degree in Economics in 1941. [1] [6]

Business career

Percy started at Bell & Howell in 1938 as an apprentice and sales trainee while he was still in college. In 1939 he worked at Crowell Collier.

He returned to Bell & Howell in 1941 to work full-time after graduating from the University of Chicago. Astute at business, within a year he was appointed a director of the company. Percy served three years in the United States Navy during World War II and returned to the company in 1945. [3]

In 1949, the Jaycees named Percy one of the "Outstanding Young Men in America", along with Gerald R. Ford Jr., of Michigan, future U.S. President, and John Ben Shepperd, future Texas Attorney General. [10]

After Joseph McNabb died in 1949, Percy was made the president of Bell & Howell. He was instrumental in leading the company during a period of financial success and growth. [11] During his leadership, Percy expanded Bell & Howell, raising revenues 32-fold and the number of employees 12-fold, and listing the company on the New York Stock Exchange. While continuing to manufacture movie cameras and movie and sound projectors for military, commercial, and home use, in the late 1940s the company diversified into the production of microfilm. It later entered the rapidly expanding markets of information services as well.

Political career

In the late 1950s, Percy decided to enter politics. With the encouragement of then U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Percy helped to write Decisions for a Better America, which proposed a set of long-range goals for the Republican Party. He belonged to the moderate and liberal wing of the Republican party, led by Eisenhower during his presidency and later closely identified with New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller. Percy hoped to broaden the base of the party.

Percy first entered electoral politics with a run for governor of Illinois in 1964, which he narrowly lost to Democratic incumbent Otto Kerner. [11] During his gubernatorial campaign, Percy reluctantly endorsed conservative Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, his future Senate colleague. Goldwater fared poorly in Illinois and throughout the country.

U.S. Senate

In 1966, Percy ran for senator from Illinois. His 21-year-old daughter Valerie was murdered at the family home in September, late in the campaign. Her death was thought to have been caused by an intruder, but the crime was never solved despite a lengthy investigation. [2]

Percy and his opponent both suspended campaigning for a couple of weeks following Valerie's death. [12] He upset Democratic Senator Paul Douglas (a former professor of Percy's at the University of Chicago) with 56 percent of the vote. [13]

After Percy appeared on the Television show Face The Nation on Sunday 15 January 1967 with the other newly elected Republican Senators, the then President Lyndon Johnson noted privately that he thought Percy would make a fine President if the opportunity should ever arise. [14]

On 12 December 1967 Senator Percy met with South Vietnamese President Thieu and assured him that "no responsible people in either the Democratic or the Republican Party favored US withdrawal from South Vietnam". [15]

In 1967, Senator Percy introduced a bill to establish a program to stimulate production of low-cost housing. Percy's proposal was the first of its kind to provide home ownership to low-income families, and it received strong support from Republicans in both the House and the Senate, although it ultimately did not pass. [11] When asked why he selected housing for his first major legislative proposal, Percy said: "Of all the problems I ran across during three years of campaigning, first for the governorship and then for the Senate, the most appalling in their consequences for the future seemed to be the problems of the declining areas of the city and countryside, the inadequacy of housing." [11] Percy voted in favor of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall to the U.S. Supreme Court. [16] [17]

When in the Senate less than two years, Percy was mentioned as a Republican hopeful for the 1968 Presidential nomination. The New York Times columnist James B. Reston referred to him as "the hottest political article in the Republican Party". [4] In 1970, Percy spoke about his enjoyment of The Autobiography of Malcolm X , saying "Every white person should read it." [18]

In 1972, Percy sought a second term to the Senate. In the general election, he defeated Congressman Roman Pucinski by a landslide. He gave up his seat on the important Senate Appropriations Committee for one on the Foreign Relations Committee. [12]

Senator Percy in 1974 introduced legislation making the 55 mph National Maximum Speed Limit permanent, which became law in January 1975, remaining in effect until it was amended in 1987 to allow 65 mph on rural Interstate highways and finally repealed in 1995. [19]

In 1978, as Percy was completing his second term, he appeared invincible. [20] Percy was considered so strong that the Democratic Party was unable to persuade any serious candidates to challenge him. [21] Alex Seith, a dark horse candidate, was his Democratic challenger. Seith had never before sought elected office but had served as an appointee on the Cook County Zoning Board of Appeals for twelve years, nine as chairman.

At that time, Percy's reputation as a moderate Rockefeller Republican, contrasted with Seith's ostensible hard-line foreign policy positions, combined to make Percy suddenly vulnerable in the weeks before the election. Percy had earlier worked to broaden the base of the Republican Party and was an outlier to more conservative elements. [12] Sensing his probable loss, Percy went on television days before the polling and, with tear-filled eyes, pleaded with Illinois voters to give him another chance. He said, "I got your message and you're right... I'm sure that I've made my share of mistakes, but your priorities are mine." [22] He won re-election 53% to Seith's 46%.

1980 luncheon in honor of the 16th Karmapa at the U S Capitol. Tibetan Buddhists (seated left to right) Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, 16th Karmapa, Chogyam Trungpa. Standing is an unknown translator and Senator Charles Percy, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee Charles Percy, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, the Karmapa, Chogyam Trungpa.jpg
1980 luncheon in honor of the 16th Karmapa at the U S Capitol. Tibetan Buddhists (seated left to right) Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, 16th Karmapa, Chogyam Trungpa. Standing is an unknown translator and Senator Charles Percy, Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee

After the Republicans won control of the Senate in 1980, Percy became chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. That year he gave a luncheon in honor of the 16th Karmapa of Tibet at the United States Capitol with other Tibetan Buddhists and Congressmen. He served in the Senate until the end of his third term in January 1985, after narrowly losing to Congressman Paul Simon in 1984. Critics had accused Percy of paying more attention to foreign affairs than to the domestic issues of his constituents. [12] After Percy's defeat, no Republican would win a senatorial race in Illinois until Peter Fitzgerald in 1998.

In 2006, writing about the influence of political lobbies on the U.S. relationship with Israel, political theorists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt wrote that they believed Percy's loss was the result of a campaign waged against him by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). [23] Earlier that year, Percy and the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Dante Fascell, expressed sympathy for the cause of Karl Linnas, a former concentration camp commander who was to be deported from Pennsylvania to Estonia, having lied in the papers he used to enter the United States. Linnas was found to have ordered, and participated in, the murders of Jews and other prisoners. [24] Percy's view, shared by Fascell, Representative Donald L. Ritter of Pennsylvania, and the Helsinki Commission, was that Linnas should be deported, but not to the Soviet Union.

While in the Senate, Percy was active in business and international affairs. Although he explored the possibility of running for President in both 1968 and 1976, he did not run either time. During the early 1970s, he clashed with President Nixon and criticized the U.S. conduct of the Vietnam War.

In 1977, Percy and Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey—responding to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and high energy prices in general—created the Alliance to Save Energy [25] to encourage a national commitment to energy efficiency. Percy was the founding chairman of the organization. [26]

Percy was mentioned again for the presidency in 1980 and 1988, but his candidacies did not progress beyond the exploratory stage.

Perhaps Percy's most important act, and his longest-lasting legacy, was ending the practice of nominating federal judges from a pool of candidates generated by the Chicago political machine. He implemented a system of consultation with, and advice from, groups of legal experts, including the professional bar association, a practice considered novel at the time. [27] One of his nominees, John Paul Stevens, was selected by President Gerald Ford as a justice of the United States Supreme Court. [27]

Marriage and family

Percy was a Christian Scientist. [6] During World War II, he married Jeanne Valerie Dickerson. They had twin daughters, Valerie and Sharon (born 1944) and a son Roger (born 1946). After Jeanne Percy's death in 1947, Percy married Loraine Diane Guyer in 1950. They also had two children: Gail (born 1953) and Mark (born 1955).

One of his twin daughters, Valerie Percy, was murdered at age 21 in her bedroom in the family home in Kenilworth, Illinois, near Chicago, during his senatorial campaign in September 1966. [28] She had been beaten and stabbed to death in her bed while the family was in residence. Although her stepmother had a brief glimpse of the killer and considerable resources were devoted to solving the crime, the identity of the murderer remains unknown. [6] The wife of a first responder physician to the scene stated in 2016 that her late husband, Dr. Robert Hohf, felt that "the crime scene had been cleaned up" by the time he arrived to the Percy home early on the morning of Sept. 18, 1966. [29]

In 1967 her twin sister Sharon Percy married John D. Rockefeller IV. [6] He became a politician and was later as elected Democratic Governor of West Virginia (1977–1985). He served as a United States Senator for West Virginia from 1985 until 2015.

Percy remained active after leaving political office but suffered from Alzheimer's disease in later years. [30] He died on September 17, 2011, at the Washington Home and Community Hospice in Washington, D.C.. [6] [12] It was the day before the 45th anniversary of his daughter Valerie's death. [28] </ref> The wife of a first responder physician to the scene stated in 2016 that her late husband, Dr. Robert Hohf, felt that "the crime scene had been cleaned up" by the time he arrived to the Percy home early on the morning of Sept. 18, 1966. [29]


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  1. 1 2 Langer, Emily (September 18, 2011). "Charles H. Percy, 91 - GOP senator's star rose quickly". The Washington Post .
  2. 1 2 Goudie, Chuck (September 14, 2006). "Percy Killing: The Forty Year File 9/15/06". abc7chicago . Archived from the original on January 13, 2014. Retrieved July 21, 2009.
  3. 1 2 "Charles Harting Percy". The Complete Marquis Who's Who. Marquis Who's Who. 2010. Gale Document Number: GALE|K2013030218. Retrieved September 18, 2011 via Fairfax County Public Library.(subscription required) Gale Biography In Context.
  4. 1 2 Clymer, Adam (September 17, 2011). "Charles Percy, Former Ill. Senator, Is Dead at 91". The New York Times. Retrieved October 14, 2014.
  5. Stephen Hess and David S. Broder. The Republican Establishment: The Present and Future of the G.O.P. New York: Harper & Row, 1967.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Clymer, Adam (September 17, 2011). "Charles Percy, Former Ill. Senator, Is Dead at 91". The New York Times . Retrieved September 17, 2011.
  7. "Edward H. Percy", Rootsweb
  8. Herndon, John W. (April 1902). "A Genealogy of the Herndon Family". The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Virginia Historical Society. 9 (4): 439–441. JSTOR   4242470.(subscription required)
  9. "Elizabeth Harting", Rootsweb
  10. The Forties. Peoria Jaycees. Retrieved September 15, 2015.
  11. 1 2 3 4 Clymer, Adam (September 17, 2011). "Charles Percy, Former Ill. Senator, Is Dead at 91". The New York Times . Retrieved September 15, 2015.
  12. 1 2 3 4 5 Pearson, Rick (September 17, 2011). "Former U.S. Sen. Charles Percy dies". Chicago Tribune . Retrieved September 18, 2011.
  13. Kenney, Hartley, David, Robert E. (2003). An Uncertain Tradition : U.S. Senators from Illinois, 1818-2003. SIU Press. p. 177. Retrieved September 16, 2015.
  18. I can Hear it Now: "The 1960s", an audio recording with Walter Cronkite
  19. "The Percy Record," p. 8. Accessed from
  20. "Percy's Problem". TIME . November 6, 1978. Retrieved July 21, 2009.
  21. Manning, Al. "The slatemaking saga of Democrats — without Daley – Was anybody happy?". Northern Illinois University. Archived from the original on September 13, 2007.
  22. "Got Your Message". TIME. November 20, 1978. Archived from the original on December 18, 2007. Retrieved July 21, 2009.
  23. Mearsheimer, John; Walt, Stephen (March 23, 2006). "The Israel Lobby". London Review of Books . 28 (6). Retrieved September 6, 2011. Thomas A. Dine, the president of AIPAC, said, "All Jews from coast to coast gathered to oust Percy. And the American politicians – those who hold public positions now, and those who aspire – got the message."
  24. Jack Anderson (January 14, 1985). "D'Amato disowns letter". The Evening News (Newburgh, NY). p. 4.
  25. "Our History". Alliance To Save Energy. Retrieved September 20, 2011.
  26. "Board of Directors". Alliance To Save Energy. Retrieved September 20, 2011.
  27. 1 2 Littlewood, Tom (April 1976). "How Sen. Percy exercises prerogative in nominating judgeship candidates". Illinois Issues. II (4). Archived from the original on September 10, 2006. Retrieved July 21, 2009.
  28. 1 2 Chuck Goudie, "Questions about Valerie Percy murder outlive her father", Daily Herald, 18 September 2011; accessed 10 December 2016
  29. 1 2
  30. "SENATOR AND MRS. ROCKEFELLER HONORED AT NATIONAL ALZHEIMER'S GALA". Senator Rockefeller. March 26, 2009. Archived from the original on September 26, 2011. Retrieved September 18, 2011.
Party political offices
Preceded by
William Stratton
Republican nominee for Governor of Illinois
Succeeded by
Richard B. Ogilvie
Preceded by
Samuel W. Witwer
Republican nominee for U.S. Senator from Illinois
(Class 2)

1966, 1972, 1978, 1984
Succeeded by
Lynn Morley Martin
U.S. Senate
Preceded by
Paul Douglas
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Illinois
Served alongside: Everett Dirksen, Ralph Tyler Smith, Adlai Stevenson III, Alan J. Dixon
Succeeded by
Paul Simon
Preceded by
Frank Church
Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Succeeded by
Richard Lugar