Former U.S. Sen. Pearson’s legacy remembered
James B. Pearson — the former U.S. Senator who pushed to deregulate the natural gas industry, advocated for expanded international trade and contributed to three Douglas County universities — died Tuesday.
Pearson, who lived part time in Baldwin City after retiring from the Senate in 1979, died at his home in Gloucester, Mass., at the age of 88.
“I can’t imagine a person more intellectually capable and committed to serving the public,” said former Baker University president Dan Lambert, who knew Pearson and his wife Margaret from their service on the university’s board of trustees.
A Navy transport pilot in World War II and later a Kansas Senator and Republican State Chairman, Pearson was appointed by Kansas Gov. John Anderson to fill the vacant seat left by the death of Sen. Andrew Schoeppel in January 1962.
In that year’s primary election, Pearson defeated former Republican Gov. Ed Arn and then won the general election. He went on to win two full six-year terms.
Pearson’s press secretary Dave Seaton told the Associated Press that his toughest races were in the primaries.
“In truth, Pearson all of his career was considered to be not Republican enough by many of the traditional Republicans,” Seaton said. “He never had a tough race in the general election.”
For 17 years, Pearson served Kansas as U.S. senator.
He worked with Sen. Walter Mondale to change the number of votes needed to end filibusters from 67 to 60. As President Richard Nixon was ordering the bombing of Laos and Cambodia, Pearson broke with the administration and worked to speed up the end of the Vietnam War.
Despite their political differences, Pearson had a strong and enduring friendship with Robert Kennedy.
“That was an important one for him, something that meant a lot,” Lambert said.
Lambert described Pearson as a self-effacing, well-read man who knew how to defuse tense situations with humor.
“He was very insightful and drew his relationship, as best as I could tell, without regard to party affiliation. He seemed always to be looking for the right answer, not necessarily the politically correct answer,” Lambert said.
In the years that followed Pearson’s senate tenure, residents of Baldwin City respected his privacy, Lambert said. He could be found mowing his own grass and early on making calls at public pay phones because there wasn’t a telephone in his home.
“He enjoyed coming out here and getting a little respite from the demands of his job in Washington,” Lambert said.
Pearson made notable contributions to the state’s higher education system.
He served on Baker University’s board of trustees, donated his papers to Kansas University and was interested in Haskell Indian Nations University.
After his retirement, campaign contributions were donated to the James B. Pearson Fellowship, which offers grants for Kansas graduate students to study overseas.