I first met Pete du Pont, who died yesterday, when he was running for president in 1988, after having served as governor of Delaware and in Congress. I was a student at the University of Minnesota and a friend of mine, Prof. Ian Maitland, was involved with his campaign in the state. Maitland told me to put on a coat and tie and come to a downtown-Minneapolis hotel for a fundraiser that du Pont was attending there.
I was clearly neither an existing nor a would-be donor. My very presence at such a function was sort of tenuous.
It was the first time I can remember writing my name in marker on one of those blank name tags left on the “welcome table” for people who clearly weren’t at least initially, well, really welcome. I wasn’t sure whether my tan chinos matched the sport coat, or that the tie went with either. I pretty much didn’t know whether to be embarrassed or petrified, so I provisionally just went with both.
When du Pont greeted me, he did so with a kindness and grace that I thought must’ve been common to those of his stature. The warm smile came natural to him, and sure seemed genuine; the eye contact, perhaps instinctive to him, was far more piercing than almost all others’.
I then met du Pont again in 2002, when he joined the board of directors of Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, on the program staff of which I worked. It was just before the first board meeting in which he would take part. There had been a lot of recent changes at the foundation, and my presence on the staff may have been in the “tenuous” category, too.
When du Pont introduced himself to me, he did so with a kindness and grace that I’d come to know was not necessarily common to those of his stature. Still a smile, still seemingly genuine. And the eye contact.
In the years that followed, du Pont proved to be as genuine as he appeared. He was a good board member, asking tough and probing questions—though always with a good nature, often quite adroitly wielding self-deprecation. Substantively, he was admirably ideas-driven. Personally, he wore his “IV” well, actually.
He was approachable, and he approached others comfortably. As time went on and my colleagues and I got to know him more, we told him we wanted to take him to what was then called Slim McGinn’s, a great Milwaukee bar we frequented after work. He said he wanted to join us there after a board meeting sometime. In fact, he said it often enough that we believed him.
We never really had the guts to invite or gently pressure him to join us, but we did get him some gift from the place—it may’ve been a t-shirt—for fun when he retired, which he accepted with a genuine smile and a look into each of our eyes. With an uncommon kindness and grace.
This article originally appeared in the Giving Review on May 9, 2021.