Thirty-seven years ago this week former Pennsylvania State Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer committed suicide in his office in Harrisburg. His death was the final chapter in a long and until then rising star political career.
Budd was unexpectedly elected State Treasurer in 1980 in part due to coattails from Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in the presidential election.
While that was certainly a key element in Budd’s victory it was not the only one. Budd was an immensely likable elected official whose good nature, work ethic, natural affinity for people, bipartisanship, and good political chops served him well before being elected and re-elected as State Treasurer.
Prior to being elected State Treasurer, he served in the State House and the State Senate from Meadville in the northwest corner of the state. He was universally well liked and respected by his constituents there. His Senate office in Harrisburg routinely received more constituent mail than every other state Senator. It was mail that he dutifully read and responded. No issue was too small for him to look into and follow up upon.
Sadly, far too many people remember Budd for his suicide on live television.
While I was not in Harrisburg on that fateful day, memories of it still haunt me.
I had the honor and privilege of working for Budd for six years – four when he served in the state senate and two when he served as state treasurer.
When I tell people that they invariably ask the question – do you think he was guilty on the charges that led to a conviction and then his suicide?
My answer is NO. I did not believe it when I received a phone call from my wife that snowy day relaying the surreal chain of events in Harrisburg. My answer today is still NO.
During my time working with him I got to know Budd as well as anybody I have ever known. As an unmarried Senate staffer, I rode with him countless times on the long roundtrip drives between the state capital and his home in Meadville. On session days in Harrisburg, I was also in his capitol office most nights until the daily session ended. I got to know him and respect him for his commitment to public service, his love for politics, his love for his family, his passion in representing his constituents, and his integrity.
I believe his love for being involved in the political arena ultimately led to his decision to end his life.
Involvement in politics was like oxygen to him. When he contemplated life without being in the political arena, he concluded it was a fate worse than death. He decided that instead of enduring e a long and likely permanent exile from politics he would simply end his life. He never told me so, but I firmly believe it.
I remember seeing him in downtown Harrisburg shortly before his death. I expected him to be bitter and angry over his fate. Instead, we had an all too brief conversation filled with reminiscing about so many great memories. Best of all was hearing him say how proud he was that my wife, our first daughter and my new job in Philadelphia were all doing well. We talked briefly about his hosting a baby shower for my wife and I prior to the birth of our first daughter. Then we shook hands, and we went our separate ways for the last time.
That is the Budd Dwyer I remember – ALWAYS focused on others rather than himself.
One can debate if it is right for someone to choose death over not being involved in the political arena. That is not my call. All I know is that was the call he made. I also know after being involved in the political arena most of my life, how exciting and meaningful life in that that arena can be.
On the anniversary of Budd’s untimely death my hope is that he will always be remembered far more for the life he lived rather than for the death he chose.
RIP Budd. You were a good man, a good mentor, and a good public servant. You are fondly remembered by those of us who knew you.
David Reel is a public affairs/public relations consultant who serves as a trusted advisor on strategy, advocacy, and media matters. Born and raised in Harrisburg, he was formerly active in the government and political arenas in Harrisburg and Philadelphia. He now lives and works from Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.