I can see Dick (more on that later) sitting in a pristine, starched white shirt with the sleeves buttoned and the cuffs slightly extending over his palms, very often bent over his paperwork with a red felt pen in hand.
Until I worked in his second administration (1983-87) as his administrative assistant, I knew Governor Thornburgh through carefully scrawled notes in the margins of speeches or memos I had sent for his attention. His questions and comments for clarity were always precise and, more importantly for a young speechwriter, he expected a response.
In the early 80s, there was no email in the Governor’s office; communications were often by phone or paper, so the page with his comment and the hand-written or typed response was dropped in his in-box.
Writing for the Governor, however, was a treat; he was extremely tolerant of staffers, who might offer a different viewpoint or better way of saying things. After discussing, the key points of a speech or important press release, I would draft it and send it for his review. It would come back marked up in red. I would often edit his edits and back and forth it would go. By about the third time, I knew his patience – and time – would run out.
We were always scrambling. Each edit had to be retyped into a clean draft.
I had planned a press conference in Pittsburgh and was working with the typist to get a final version before catching a plane at Harrisburg International Airport. I knew the plane would leave on the scheduled time with or without the press aide. The Governor did not like to be late, so you better not be. At the last minute, I made another edit without checking and jumped on the plane – literally knee- to-knee in the small, cramped passenger area of a state plane.
I had just leaned back to relax in the seat and handed him the press release to underline and mark up to be used as talking points for the press conference. Suddenly, he threw up his hands and demanded “What’s this,” shoving the release at me and showing me a highlighted sentence. I do not recall all the details, but it turned out it was the added statement, which he knew would be offensive to a pro-union crowd.
Writing for the Governor was a treat; he was extremely tolerant of staffers, who might offer a different viewpoint or better way of saying things.
Seriously rattled, I promised to fix it as he stared at me owlishly from behind his famous, round, horn-rimmed glasses ( He later replaced the preppy glasses with contacts.) When we landed, I explained to the press there was a glitch, and a final release would be in time for their deadlines. It was a chilly ride back to the airport, but I managed to correct the error and before we disembarked in Middletown he noted it was a “good recovery” and it was forgotten.
That was the kind of boss he was. He fully understood and appreciated the importance of staff work. He often praised a speech I had written or a memo I submitted in that famous bold red ink. I still have a few of those documents today.
I always referred to him as “Governor” – never Dick – until he had left office and I felt comfortable addressing him by his first name. He realized early on that his button-down style could be off-putting and made the decision that “Richard” would become “Dick,” both officially in documents and in personal address.
I know some considered him less than warm, but it was not true. Both on a personal level and on the stump, his charm was reminiscent of a favorite older uncle. He laughed a lot and truly enjoyed interacting with people one-on-one.
At the end of every administration, there are many loose ends. As the governor’s administrative assistant in 1986 a few odd things came my way, but how they were handled speaks to the governor’s penchant for propriety.
As he documents in his book, “Where the Evidence Leads,” for example, Dick had received two huge ivory tusks in the summer of 1986 from the president of the Congo during a government-sponsored trip to Africa. He knew they were trouble and managed to leave them in the care of the American ambassador.
However, when the Congolese president visited Harrisburg the same year for a tour of nearby farms that I had arranged, he came with the tusks in wooden crates that the Governor had “forgotten.” Not yet illegal, the valuable ivory would have created quite a stir with wildlife enthusiasts and others. We could have left them for incoming Governor Bob Casey to deal with, but after a lot of finagling with reluctant museum staff, they were donated to the Pennsylvania Museum.
It wasn’t any crises like Three Mile Island, but a series of missteps like this have a way of causing a public opinion melt-down in less careful hands.
In this day and age, prurient peccadillos, and some not so small, seem to be the way of political life. I remember once I overheard someone from the press corps speculate about the temptations for any high elected official, like a governor. “You could show me a photo of Thornburgh leaving a bar with two blondes on his arms and I would deny its existence,” I told the reporter. He was a man of unparalleled integrity, something in short supply today.
Before I joined the administration, I completed a journalism fellowship in Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii, with a focus on Mandarin language and Chinese contemporary history. Dick went to China in 1983 on a National Governors Association trip and I took it upon myself to prepare an extensive briefing on the country.
When he returned, he held a dinner at the Governor’s Home (no longer referred to as “The Mansion”, which he found pretentious) with a noted Harvard China expert. To my joy, he invited myself and my wife to join them. It was a marvelous dinner, and I was treated like an equal — heady stuff for a self-styled China expert.
The crowning touch was when the evening ran late, Dick’s wife, Ginny, always a gracious host, invited us the spend the night. We had small children and, frankly, we were a little overwhelmed by the invitation, so we declined. But the invitation was indicative of how the first couple of Pennsylvania treated folks who worked for and with them.
In the end, serving the Governor – Dick – and the Commonwealth was one of the most fulfilling parts of my professional life. We have lost a great American and I will miss him dearly.
Terry Williamson divides his time between Brigantine, NJ, and Florida. A former Marine, he is the author of “’Rocks and Fists:’ The Decimation of the 141st NVA Regiment” and is writing a novel about PTSD. He served as Governor Thornburgh’s deputy press secretary and speechwriter, and administrative assistant.
One thought on “Terry Williamson: Remembering Governor Dick Thornburgh, Pennsylvania’s steady hand”
I enjoyed this glimpse into a chapter of your life before I had the pleasure of working with you at PJM. Thank you for sharing that, and as well for the insight of the character of Governor Thornburgh. I hope life is treating you and yours well, and wish you a Happier New Year!