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Colleagues eulogize late Gov. du Pont in service

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Hundreds attended a Friday memorial service for the late Gov. Pete du Pont, who died last year. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

WILMINGTON – Several hundred people attended the celebration of life service for the late former Gov. Pierre “Pete” S. du Pont IV on Friday nearly a year after his passing.

One of the last Republicans to hold the governor’s mansion, du Pont, who died May 8, 2021, at age 86 after a long illness, left a lasting legacy. Delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, a crowd of state business leaders, DuPonters, philanthropists and elected politicians from both parties paid their respects at the ceremony held Friday in the Playhouse on Rodney Square in the building that bears his distinguished family name, the DuPont Building.

A panel of speakers, including Gov. John Carney and Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist George Will, who was a longtime friend of the late governor, eulogized du Pont, who is credited with brokering the bipartisan “Delaware Way,” fixing the state’s then-battered financial standing and delivering tens of thousands of finance jobs through the Financial Center Development Act of 1981.

A scion of the famed du Pont family, the two-term governor was the son of Pierre S. du Pont III, a DuPont company executive, and the great nephew of Pierre S. du Pont, who served as president of both DuPont and General Motors while also founding Longwood Gardens.

Like many in the family, Pete worked for a time at DuPont before striking out in a career in public service. In 1968, he was elected to the state House of Representatives and two years later successfully won the race for Delaware’s lone congressional House seat as a Republican.

Du Pont would serve three terms in Congress before turning his sights back to his home state and running for governor in 1976, defeating Democratic incumbent Sherman Tribbitt. He served two terms as governor from 1977 to 1985, working with a Democratic-majority state legislature to pass two income tax cuts and measures to restrain state spending.

In his remarks, Carney recalled the mess that du Pont ran to inherit in 1976: there was a huge budget deficit, the state’s credit rating was the lowest in the country, the Farmers’ Bank of Delaware with all the state revenue deposited there was on the brink of insolvency, the personal tax rate was the highest in the country, and the state’s political climate was decidedly adversarial.

“We had a reputation for being bad for business. Heck, even the DuPont company was unhappy with the business climate here,” Carney said. “Worst of all, nobody believed it could be any different. Nobody except Pete.”

Recounting the legislative, economic and administrative changes that du Pont was able to make over his eight years as governor, Carney said, “Pete du Pont’s legacy is so deeply embedded in our state’s political culture, that most of us in office today never knew any different.”

“The changes were transformational, and they put the state back on track. As you might expect, they were controversial at the time. Today though, thanks to Governor du Pont, it’s just the way we do business here in Delaware.”

Washington Post columnist George Will talks about his longtime friend Pete du Pont as the late governor’s family listens. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

In his remarks Friday, Will compared du Pont with the failed 1964 Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, saying, “He set a good example. He took politics and ideas seriously, and he took neither politics nor himself too seriously.”

“In today’s acid rain of political acrimony, it is well to remember the politics in the United States can be, has been, and actually it always should be, fun,” Will added.

Many of the speakers, including du Pont’s widow, Elise, and his four children, daughter Elise Zoller and her brothers Pierre, Ben and Thère du Pont, recalled the unending humor with which du Pont approached his life and duties.

“Pete understood two great truths. One is that ideas have consequences. Indeed, only ideas have large and lasting consequences. The second thing Pete understood is that ideas give weight and dignity to politics. Ideas rescue politics from the degenerating scrum of grasping factions. But ideas are not enough. Politics and ideas without the leveling of cheerfulness, can be grim and unforgiving. It was Pete’s cheerfulness that American politics today misses most,” Will said.

Award-winning columnist George Will said one of du Pont’s lasting legacies was the cheer he brought to often dour politics. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

“Part of Pete’s legacy, his gift to a nation much in need of such a gift today, is the memory of his incandescent smile,” he added. “He was tonic in human form and stimulant for all who had the pleasure of his company.”

Will’s remark that the 1988 Republican electorate failed when it didn’t embrace du Pont’s ideas and candidacy for the presidency received a round of applause from the audience.

“Grownups cannot go into the strenuous business of politics because they are content with the way things are, rather they enter politics because they have ideas that they think would improve things,” he said. “Pete had ideas, including famously those he called ‘Damn Right Ideas.’ And if someone said to him, ‘Pete, you know a lot of your ideas are actually the ideas of the Founding Fathers,’ he would have cheerfully responded, ‘Damn right.’”

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