Writer weaves Delaware’s story through its governors

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Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, left, joins past governors Ruth Ann Minner, Dale Wolf and Mike Castle to celebrate the second edition release of Roger A. Martin’s book, “A History of Delaware through its Governors.” (Delaware State News/Andrew West)

DOVER — Back in 1999, the Delaware State News had a yearlong series called “Looking Back.”

We reflected on the 20th century as it came to a close.

During that time, we often consulted “A History of Delaware through its Governors” for ideas and information. The pages had been turned so many times that the binding on the book was nearly worn out.

Former state senator Roger A. Martin’s book is rich in history and we came to appreciate it for the way it wove the trials and triumphs of governors with the biggest news of the day during their time in office.

Mr. Martin recalled Tuesday how the late Tom Eldred, a former Delaware State News senior writer, would always ask him, “When are you going to get that book updated?”

Mr. Eldred would be happy to know it’s done.

From the Editor logo copy copyThe Delaware Heritage Commission has published the second edition of “A History of Delaware through its Governors” with new chapters on Michael N. Castle, Dale E. Wolf, Thomas R. Carper and Ruth Ann Minner.

“We decided not to include the administration of Governor Jack Markell, since it’s still a work in progress,” said Richard Carter, chairman of the Delaware Heritage Commission, in the book’s introduction.

The book, which includes scores of excellent Delaware historical photos, picks up where it left off in 1984 when it was first published. The original featured something on the terms of every Delaware president and governor — from John McKinly to Pierre S. “Pete” du Pont IV.

On Tuesday, Mr. Carter introduced the book at Woodburn, the governor’s mansion, in Dover.

Present were Gov. Jack Markell and former governors Ruth Ann Minner, Michael N. Castle and Dale Wolf.

“Roger, congratulations, I just can’t even begin to imagine how much work this took,” Gov. Markell said. “If Dick says he’s been working on your manuscript for five years, I believe every bit of it.”

***

Mr. Martin said the book has actually been about a 50-year project.

His fascination with governors started when he was a teen growing up in Laurel. Reading about his hometown’s governors on a historical marker in front of the high school piqued his interest.

Reflecting on the state’s governors, he said Republican John G. Townsend Jr. (1917-21), Republican Walter W. Bacon (1941-49), Democrat Elbert N. Carvel (1949-53, 1961-65) and Republican Russell W. Peterson (1969-73) had the greatest impact on the state.

In Gov. Townsend’s time in office, Delawareans dealt with prohibition and women’s suffrage, reformed the education system and enjoyed new and better highways.

Gov. Townsend’s story has a tragic twist outlined in the book. On a trip back to his Selbyville home after a University of Delaware football game, he swerved on a muddy road and overturned his car, leaving his wife pinned under it. She died from the injuries.

The biography Mr. Martin penned on him also suggests that Gov. Townsend’s daughter had a great influence on his push for the women’s right to vote. His efforts failed in the Delaware legislature, largely due to the lack of support from Sussex County lawmakers.

Gov. Bacon led the state through the difficult World War II years. “He brought a sense of purpose and determination

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Roger A. Martin’s interest in Delaware governors was first piqued when he was a high school student in Laurel. A Democrat, he first won election to the state senate in 1972.

to the governor’s office rarely seen before,” Mr. Martin writes in the book. “Preaching economy, Bacon became known by his critics as something of a ‘pinch-penny.’”

Gov. Carvel was known for guiding the state into postwar needs, and advances in school desegregation, civil rights and education.

Mr. Martin wrote of Gov. Peterson, “Strangely, here was a man who had brought forth some of the greatest reforms in the state’s history — namely, the cabinet form of government, fair housing, the Coastal Zone Act, and the abolition of the whipping post — and he was denied a second term in office.”

Delaware’s commission form of government had scores of political appointees who were upset with the changes that Gov. Peterson acted on so swiftly in his first term. Democrat Sherman Tribbitt was elected governor in 1972.

***

A common theme in the new chapters on the Castle, Carper and Minner eras relates to the period of financial successes under the Castle and Carper administrations and the challenges the Minner administration had right from the start.

In 1985, Gov. du Pont wrapped up two terms in office in which he balanced state budgets, cut taxes multiple times and oversaw tremendous job growth.

The Castle chapter leads with a quote from the governor that reads, “I came in at a time of prosperity. Obviously a prospering economy is key to some of the things we have done. But I don’t think anything is pure fate or luck.”

During his time in office, he pushed for additional tax cuts and pushed aggressive legislation to make Delaware a good place for banking. Gov. Castle’s final two terms were more challenging as spending grew and revenues dropped. Taxes were increased for gas, alcohol, cigarettes and real estate transfers.

The book references the “the swap” or “switcheroo” of the 1992 election when then U.S. Rep. Carper successfully ran for governor and Gov. Castle won the seat in Washington.

“Carper entered office with a rising sea of state revenues, economic expansion and voter contentment,” Mr. Martin writes in the book.

His terms also were marked with changing economic times. In 1996, DuPont announced it would be cutting 1,420 jobs at its Seaford nylon plant. Meanwhile, new casinos reported slots betting totaling $2.2 billion. It’s noted in the book that Gov. Carper allowed the slots bill to become law without his signature.

Soon after Gov. Minner’s term began in 2000, she had to issue orders for state agencies to make cuts and struggled with budgets through both terms.

***

Gov. Minner and Gov. Wolf each served interim terms, stepping up from lieutenant governors when Govs. Castle and Carper went to Washington.

An interesting bit of trivia revealed in the book is that Gov. Minner has three unique distinctions — she was first woman to hold the office; she is the only to have three terms (one interim, two elected); and her total length in office is the longest.

With her second-term chapter appears a portrait of her painted by Tubby Raymond, the famed University of Delaware football coach.

***

In attendance Tuesday were teachers Gov. Markell had at Shue Middle School in Newark many years ago.

It reminded Gov. Markell of his own introduction to politics when he was a young teenager.

“My teacher, Dr. Brown, basically offered me extra credit in a totally unrelated class — which was like eighth-grade algebra — if I would hand out flyers and brochures with my friends for Roger Martin,” said Gov. Markell to much laughter. “So thanks for getting me off on the right foot.”

Mr. Martin, a Democrat from Newark, served in the Senate from 1972-1994.

***

The book’s appeal goes beyond just the politics of the day. Interspersed throughout are the top headlines of each era — everything from executions to snow and ice storms to 9/11 and impact of wars on Delawareans to the University of Delaware football championships.

The new chapters brought back a number of news memories for this editor who has now observed the work of Governors Castle, Wolf, Carper, Minner and Markell from this role.

As stated at the top, we found several useful nuggets in the book that led to neat stories in our 1999 series. One memorable one was the “Lonely Hearts” murder case. In 1949, near the start of the Carvel era, a Dover woman had been luring men, taking their money and disposing of their bodies. The woman, Inez Brennan, had a farm on Horsepond Road — not far from the current office of the Delaware State News.

***

There are fun bits of humor here and there in the book, too.

In the Carper section, it describes one of his final official duties as a ribbon was cut for the new Delaware Public Archives area. An exasperated woman happened into the room while he was speaking, and inquired as to where the restroom was.

“For once,” writes Mr. Martin, “the adept public speaker seemed to be at a loss for words.”

Another amusing tale was the case of Gov. Castle’s incognito limousine on Governor’s Day at the Delaware State Fair.

The folks at the Delaware State Fair had it towed for being parked in an unauthorized area. The attendants didn’t know the identifying No. 1 tag had been covered by a fake one until it fell off at a local service station.

***

Mr. Martin offered just a few remarks at the event, thanking his the Delaware Heritage Commission, staff of the Delaware Public Archives, and his family — especially Adele, his wife of 55 years.

“It just wasn’t my work,” said Mr. Martin. “It’s a conglomeration of a lot of good people who put a lot of good things into it and I’m very proud of that.”

The book is for sale for $25 and available at the Delaware Public Archives. The Delaware Heritage Commission said the cost essentially just pays for the printing of the 525-page book.

It can be purchased online for $32, with extra price covering the cost of delivery, at http://shop.delaware.gov.

“I think when you read this, you’ll find what an incredibly rich heritage our state has and what a story it has to tell about the parts that these governors have played in our lives over the centuries,” said Mr. Carter.

Reach editor Andrew West at awest@newszap.com

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