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Former Illinois Sen. Charles Percy dies at age of 91

Charles H. Percy is surrounded by other members his family as he announces his candidacy for Illinois GOP governorship Water

Charles H. Percy is surrounded by the other members of his family as he announces his candidacy for the Illinois GOP governorship at the Water Tower Inn on July 2, 1963 in Chicago. From left to right are Valerie, 18; her twin sister, Sharon; Mrs. Percy; the candidate, and Roger, 16. The youngest Percys, Gail, 9, and Mark, 7, stayed at home. | Sun-Times File Photo

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Updated: November 10, 2011 12:10PM

Charles H. Percy, the wonder boy from Illinois, president of Bell & Howell at 29, a United States senator at 47, and for four years chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, died early Saturday morning in Washington, D.C.

He was 91, and had struggled with Alzheimer’s disease in recent years.

Percy won his seat in 1966, less than two months after the brutal murder of his daughter Valerie, a crime that shocked Chicago and the nation. The murderer was never caught, and to this day the case is often the first thing Chicagoans think of when remembering Percy, despite his many accomplishments.

He might have been president. Upon taking office, the dapper, handsome Percy immediately was pegged as presidential timber, one of the “New Breed’’ Republicans, by a GOP eager to move beyond the disastrous Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964. He was on the cover of Time magazine, and no less a figure than Dwight D. Eisenhower predicted he’d be president.

But it was perilous to be both an outspoken liberal and a Republican, and Percy’s presidential hopes were thwarted by more conservative Republicans such as Richard Nixon.

Percy also was hobbled, paradoxically, by his honesty, energy and ambition, traits which some viewed as character flaws.

“He seemed to be a whirlwind of self-promotion, obsessed with public relations,’’ George Will wrote in 1974. “He seemed to be a blend of two disagreeable and until then unblendable character traits: cynicism and naivete.’’

Charles Harting Percy was born on Sept. 27, 1919, in Pensacola, Fla. His parents, Edward and Elizabeth Harting Percy, were devout Christian Scientists. The family moved to Chicago in early 1920.

Percy grew up in Rogers Park and Wilmette. He was, by all accounts, a driven little boy. His first job at age 5 was selling magazines, and he did it so well that, at age 7, he got his first public recognition -- a year’s membership to the YMCA for selling more subscriptions than anybody else.

His father, a banker, was laid off in the Depression, and the family went on relief. Young Charles sold his mother’s homemade sand tart cookies on the street to help out. His Sunday school teacher Joseph H. McNabb, the president of Bell & Howell, encouraged him to enter into a Bell & Howell cooperative training program. In 1936 he did, while studying at the University of Chicago.

At college, Percy was a Big Man on Campus. He was president of his fraternity, Alpha Delta Phi, captain of the university’s championship water polo team, and marshal to university President Robert Maynard Hutchins, the highest honor the school could give.

He displayed considerable business savvy. He formed a cooperative to save money by pooling fraternity purchases and buying in bulk. By the time he graduated, in 1941, his co-op was grossing $150,000 a year. Hutchins called him “the richest boy who ever worked his way through college.’’

After graduation, Percy joined Bell & Howell full time. At 23, he was elected to the board of directors. In February, 1943, he took a leave to join the Navy.

Percy married Jeanne Dickerson in 1943, and they had three children, including a pair of twin girls. His wife died during surgery in 1947. He married Loraine Guyer in 1950. They had a daughter and a son. Sen. Percy’s family prayed together daily.

He returned to Bell & Howell after the war to lead industrial relations and foreign manufacturing programs.

Following the death of McNabb in January, 1949, Percy was named Bell & Howell president and chief executive officer -- at 29, the youngest person to head a major American corporation up to that time.

Under his leadership over the following 14 years, annual sales climbed from $13 million to $160 million.

He entered politics as a Republican precinct captain in 1946, organizing returning vets in Kenilworth. As he rose in business, he was taken under the wing of Eisenhower.

“Gen. Eisenhower was the controlling influence that caused me to come into public life,’’ Percy said in an interview for the Eisenhower Library. “He was the only man who could have caused me to seek elective office.’’

In 1955, Percy was elected president of the United Republican Fund of Illinois, having raised $4 million for the party in four years.

In 1956, Eisenhower named him as special ambassador to represent the United States at the presidential inaugurations in Peru and Bolivia.

As a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1964, Percy supported Goldwater. That year, Percy ran for governor against Otto Kerner and was narrowly defeated.

In 1966, he ran for the Senate against incumbent Paul Douglas.

On Sept. 18, 1966, Valerie, one of Percy’s 21-year-old twin daughters, was murdered in her bed at the family’s 17-room mansion in Kenilworth. The crime was never solved.

Because of the crime, both candidates declared a halt to campaigning, resuming in mid-October.

Percy rolled over Douglas, 74, by nearly half a million votes. Some observers felt a certain amount of “sympathy vote’’ was a factor.

Nevertheless, “the whiz kid of the 90th Congress’’ and “the wonder boy from Illinos’’ quickly made a name for himself, speaking out on a range of issues. Attention immediately centered on him as a presidential hope for the battered Republican Party.

“Sen. Percy says he isn’t running for president, but he’s walking awfully fast,’’ began a news story in September, 1967.

Percy was an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam, which he visited in 1967. During a tour of the Dak Son refugee camp near the Cambodian border, his party came under mortar and rifle attack and had to be rescued by U.S. helicopter gunships.

“I never got lower to the ground in my life,’’ Percy later said.

Percy did not abate his criticisms of the war when it ceased being Lyndon Johnson’s war and became Richard Nixon’s war.

“Is it worth tearing ourselves apart inside and spending a half billion dollars a week?’’ he asked in 1969. “I say it’s not worth it.’’

Nixon disagreed, and placed his fellow Republican on his infamous Enemies List.

In 1970, Percy joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which he chaired for his last four years in office. The same year, Percy persuaded Nixon to give future Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens a spot on the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit -- Percy was known for having an excellent eye for judicial talent.

In 1972, Percy won re-election by more than a million votes.

The biggest controversy of his second term came when Sen. Percy, the State of Israel Bonds Committee’s 1970 Man of the Year, made a visit to the Middle East in 1975 and called on Israel to “take some risks for peace’’ by negotiating with Yasser Arafat and withdrawing to its 1967 borders.

Pro-Israel groups never forgave Percy -- though, ironically, his suggestions were embraced in subsequent peace efforts.

He was elected to a third term in 1978, but in 1984, his image was tarred in a bitter Republican primary, and he was defeated in the fall by Democrat Paul Simon.

After leaving the Senate, Percy said his proudest accomplishment in office had been pushing for more opportunity for women in the federal government.

Leaving elective politics, Percy formed a company that worked on behalf of American firms conducting business abroad. He remained an active figure on the Washington, D.C., scene, not only as a former senator and a consultant, but as the father-in-law of Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the husband of his surviving twin daughter Sharon.

After 1995 he began developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, though he remained an eager participate in his family and civic interests until recent years.

A section of Georgetown park along the Potamac River was named in his honor in 2008, and the University of California at Berkley named a scholarship program for Percy.

The family will be holding a private service. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in the name of Charles H. Percy to The Friends of Georgetown Waterfront Park (P.O. Box 3653, Washington, D.C. 20027) or WETA (3939 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA 22206).

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