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Penn People

Harold Edward Stassen 1907 - 2001

Penn Connection

  • University president 1948-1953

Harold E. Stassen — national political leader, president of the University of Pennsylvania, and later, perennial candidate for public office — was born on April 13, 1907, in West St. Paul, Minnesota, to William Andrew Stassen, a farmer, and Elsie Emma Mueller. His grandparents, all of whom were immigrants, originated from countries across Europe, including Norway, the Czech Republic, and Germany.

Stassen’s political aspirations began early in his life. He graduated from high school at the age of fifteen and entered the University of Minnesota a year later. While in college, he served as president of the student body and chairman of the Minnesota Young Republican League, an organization that he founded and would later draw from as his political base.

Upon completion of his undergraduate degree, Stassen entered the University of Minnesota’s law school, graduating in 1929. Almost immediately, Stassen and a classmate opened law offices in South St. Paul; their endeavor proved so successful that they soon hired five additional lawyers. In the same year, Stassen made the first move in a political career that was as remarkable for its early triumphs as it was bewildering in its string of later defeats. He won the race for attorney in Dakota County (located just south of Minneapolis-St. Paul), despite the fact that he was hospitalized with tuberculosis for much of the campaign. Stassen assumed office at the age of twenty three and was regularly reelected to the post.

In 1937, Stassen announced his intention to run for governor of Minnesota. With the support of his Young Republicans, Stassen successfully wrested power from the state’s old-guard Republicans. When he was elected the next year at the age of thirty one, Stassen became the youngest governor in Minnesota’s history. He was reelected in 1940 after he delivered the keynote address at the Republican Convention, during which he helped to clinch the nomination for Wendell Willkie, who lost the presidential election to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

After his reelection as governor in 1942, Stassen did not finish his term, but instead joined the Navy in 1943 as a lieutenant commander and served as chief of staff to Admiral William Halsey in the South Pacific. In 1945, President Roosevelt named Stassen to the American delegation to the first United Nations conference in San Francisco, where he helped to write the U.N. Charter. Later in his political career, Stassen would write a complete revision of the original charter.

In 1948, Stassen made his first and strongest bid for the White House. Following the war, Stassen had traveled widely throughout the United States and abroad, making speeches and cultivating political support. His early victories in Republican primaries seemed to indicate that Stassen would beat President Harry Truman in a head-to-head race. Yet that summer, at the GOP convention in Philadelphia, Stassen fell short of victory, losing the nomination to New York Governor Thomas Dewey.

In the wake of his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination, the board of trustees of the University of Pennsylvania chose Stassen to fill the office of the president, left vacant by the sudden retirement of George McClelland. At the time, many officials throughout the University questioned the selection of a president with no ties to Penn or experience as an academic administrator. His vast array of political and administrative experience, however, afforded Stassen a measure of success in handling his duties as president.

When Stassen assumed office, Penn was in the middle of a long-term financial crisis. As a skilled fundraiser, Stassen helped to raise money and cut costs, channeling Penn’s financial resources into a few prestigious departments at the expense of others. Stassen also focused on fulfilling McClelland’s campus expansion plan, as well as reforming intercollegiate athletics in order to conform to the requirements of the new Ivy League.

Stassen’s emphasis on athletics focused primarily on Penn’s football teams, for which he attempted to garner maximum national exposure. At the center of his program was Stassen’s belief that academic excellence was not incompatible with gridiron success. To that end, Stassen engaged in a highly-publicized fight with the NCAA over televising Quaker home games. Penn, which was one of only two colleges in the country with a national television contract, enjoyed a considerable amount of revenue from the deal. When the NCAA voted to restrict the number of televised games in order to stop the slide in gate attendance, Stassen defied the order and signed a $200,000 contract with ABC. Eventually, however, Stassen was forced to back down when the NCAA threatened to expel the Quakers. His actions left Penn’s national reputation damaged and relations with its peer institutions profoundly frayed.

Stassen was most noted at Penn for his frequent absences from campus, particularly during the 1952 spring semester when he made another bid for the Republican presidential nomination. On campus, he was heavily criticized for using Penn as a political staging ground. He was frequently away from campus, committing time to fundraising and campaigning rather than administrative responsibilities. In addition to his 1952 presidential campaign, Stassen also took an extended leave of absence for a speaking tour in Asia. Stassen’s tenure as Penn’s president was ultimately brief and relatively unproductive. When newly-elected President Eisenhower offered Stassen a position in his American foreign aid administration, neither the board nor the University at large was surprised when he accepted.

Stassen kept few ties to the University after his term ended. Following his initial appointment by Eisenhower, he continued to dabble in politics. In 1955, Eisenhower appointed him special assistant to the president for disarmament matters, a job that he continued until 1958. While part of Eisenhower’s cabinet, Stassen spoke out against Vice President Richard Nixon, campaigning for his removal from Eisenhower’s 1956 reelection ticket (and in favor of himself as his replacement).

When Stassen left the Eisenhower administration in 1958, he became a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor of Pennsylvania. His defeat by large margin signaled the end of his importance as a political figure, despite his candidacy for a number of positions in the following years. Throughout his political trials, Stassen maintained a successful law practice in Philadelphia.

Stassen’s political career following his 1958 defeat became somewhat of a long-standing public joke. Between 1948 and 1992, he campaigned nine times for the Republican Party nomination for president, never coming close to winning after 1948. He also ran for governor of Minnesota four times (winning his first two attempts), governor of Pennsylvania twice, the United States Senate twice, and mayor of Philadelphia once.

Despite his status as a political laughingstock, Stassen remained active in politics until his death. He gained a reputation as a liberal Republican when, as president of the American Baptist Convention in 1963, he joined Martin Luther King in his march on Washington, D.C. On his ninetieth birthday in 1998, Stassen was still working on a 129-page proposal to revise the United Nations Charter. His political perseverance was also very much still alive; he filed yet again for the Minnesota gubernatorial race that Jesse Ventura eventually won.

Stassen married Esther Glewwe in 1929, with whom he had two children. He died on March 4, 2001, at the age of 93.