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They gathered at their Lake Ariel cottage in rural Wayne County on a warm summer weekend in 1985. For Bob and Ellen Casey, the house on the Jake was their favorite retreat, filled with many happy memories. Casey treasured being with family, as he later would reflect, “The overarching memory of the time when our children were young was the sheer fun we all had together.” While cooking dinner on the outdoor grill, he asked his sons Robert and Christopher for their advice. Should he “try it again”?

Casey’s wife and children knew full well his qualities and capabilities. Drive, resilience, incorruptible honesty, intuition, passion for causes in which he believed, uncommonly sound judgment, and compassion all came naturally. “He was very unusual,” remembers Ellen Harding Casey, his partner of nearly fifty years, “Spike excelled at everything he did. He was driven by the desire to make a difference in people’s lives.”

The crucial decision on which he consulted his family was whether or not he should run for the governorship of Pennsylvania. Robert Patrick Casey (1932-2000) had been down this path before. Although endorsed by the Commonwealth’s Democrats in 1966 and 1970, he came up short in both primary elections. In 1978 he tried again, banking on his no-nonsense career as auditor general, the Keystone State’s taxpayer watchdog, from 1969 to 1977. Again the primary eluded him.

“The seventy-eight defeat was particularly tough,” Chris, his second eldest son, explains, “but it’s important to understand who my father was. Here was someone who believed that positions of power should be used for good. ‘Don’t leave anybody behind’ was what he would say. But he didn’t just say it. He believed it.” With the 1986 gubernatorial race on the horizon – and encouraged along the way by respected friends and associates – Bob Casey sensed it was time for a Democratic victory. Up to that point in the twentieth century Democrats had controlled the governor’s office for only twenty years, Republicans for sixty-six. Casey had spent the last several years heading the Scranton office of Philadelphia-based law firm Dilworth, Paxson, Kalish and Kauffman. He was good at what he did and made a good living, but his heart was always in state politics. “I’ve had a love affair with Pennsylvania for over twenty years,” he said. ‘It’s been unrequited, but my ardor has never cooled. The people are long-suffering. They come from the immigrants who mined the coal, made the steel, built the roads. I identify with these people,” he told a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

What he saw across Pennsylvania troubled him and fanned his passion. Once the nation’s workshop, the Commonwealth was in the midst of a radical economic transition from heavy industry to service and technology. Steel mills were closing, following coal mines, coke ovens, apparel and textile factories, and manufac­turers of many sorts. Although historians and economists could trace the roots of deindustrialization in Pennsylvania to as early as the 1920s, the term would come to define the Keystone State by the 1980s when communities saw their unemployment rates climb to double digits. Pennsylvania, like it or not, was part of the nation’s rustbelt.

Casey knew full well that these would not be easy times in which to govern. “There’s an illusion in Pennsylvania that everything is okay today,” he said. ‘It’s a case of high-tech versus smokestack. High-tech is important to our future. But what about the tens of thousands of people who have been cast aside? When you travel through the anthracite region, the Mon Valley, Bethlehem … you find that the state is hemorrhaging. Too many are being left behind. We must build a Pennsylvania that is worthy of its past.”

For those closest to him, Casey’s words weren’t political rhetoric. Matthew Casey emphasizes that his father “meant it. He felt it. It was part of who he was. You have to understand where he came from.” How Bob Casey reacted to what he saw had much to do with from where he came, with his family, and with the past. When he looked across Pennsylvania, he saw “people like my father – strong, loyal, hardworking. They’re tough people. My father never had it easy. But he never complained,” and yet, somehow, many of these people “came up short when the economy took a nosedive.”

His father, Alphonsus Ligouri Casey, learned early in life about hard work and responsibility – things common to the culture of Pennsylvania’s coalfields. Born in 1893, the elder Casey went to work at age eleven in an anthracite mine as a mule boy to support five younger siblings after his father died. His father Thomas, and grandfather Edward (who emigrated with his parents from Ireland in 1851 during the potato famine or “Great Hunger”), had all worked in the hard coal mines. Coal mining had its inherent dangers ­especially for children – as Alphonsus Casey learned when a mule kicked him in the face, hurling him over a loaded coal car. Bloodied and shaken, he was helped home by another boy on the orders of the coal company. His mother called a doctor who laid him on the dining room table to stitch his open wound, which left a permanent scar.

When his mother died in 1910, Alphonsus Casey became the sole supporter of his family. He worked on the Delaware and Lackawanna Railroad and for Scranton Transit Company and served as an officer in the Amalgamated Associa­tion of Street Electric Railway and Motor Coach Employees Union. He sent himself to night school and received a high school diploma in his twenties. In his early thirties he entered an evening program at Fordham University Law School in New York designed for working adults who did not hold a college degree. To support his wife, Marie Cummings, and his son Robert P., born in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, New York, on January 9, 1932, he waited tables at a restaurant. In 1926, he was awarded a law degree and then practiced in New York City. In 1934, the family returned to Scranton where he established a law practice.

Alphonsus Casey became active in Democratic Party politics in Lackawanna County and unsuccessfully campaigned for the posts of district attorney and county judge. In his legal work he was “always helping people down on their luck,” explains his eldest son, typically aggrieved or injured mineworkers. He served as assistant U.S. attorney, a presidential elector, solicitor for the Scranton School District, and taught at the University of Scranton. In his transformation from a mineworker to a lawyer that his colleagues referred to as “a formidable adversary in court [whose] closing arguments were truly dramatic master­pieces of art,” Alphonsus Casey had, indeed, led a most unusual life. As his son put it, his father was “quietly triumphant.”

Alphonsus and Marie, a woman of generosity and civility, introduced Bob and his younger brother John to life’s essential lessons: right and wrong, compassion, justice, fairness, respect, love, and work – values that would remain with them throughout their lives. Among Bob Casey’s childhood memories were trips to a nearby amusement park, Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden, Ebbet’s Field in Brooklyn, and Atlantic City; playing baseball; family gatherings; and the unyielding faith and generosity of his parents.

In grade school, a deliveryman at St. Paul’s School tagged the elder Casey boy with the moniker “Spike.” “No one really knows why but, you know, everyone around here had nicknames,” his wife explains. Many of his grandchildren­ – twenty-eight at the time of his death­ – lovingly called him Spike.

Spike Casey grew up handsome, tall, athletic, and tough; excelling at Scranton Preparatory School as a baseball player. As captain of the varsity basketball squad, he was recognized as one of the top five basketball players in Lackawanna County. His first attempts at elected office brought him the presidency of the senior class and head of the student council. He contributed to the school’s Prep News and received top grades for essays on the American Revolution and on religious history, as well as for essays in Latin.

During his time at Scranton Prep, he met Ellen Theresa Harding, a student at Marywood Seminary. Although she initially turned him down for a date, soon they attended a Thanksgiving dance and YMCA dances together and began dating regularly. In 1949, foregoing an offer to tryout for the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, he accepted an athletic scholarship to the College of the Holy Cross, a Jesuit college founded in 1843 in Worcester, Massachusetts. Majoring in English, he consistently earned dean’s list honors. Casey served as senior class president, was a member of the student congress, and was on the basketball squad. His thesis, “Dickens as a Legal Satirist,” hinted at his career interests.

Harding, studying fine arts at Mary­wood College in the Dunmore section of Scranton, stayed closely in touch with Casey. “My parents didn’t necessarily like the idea of me having a steady boyfriend. But they loved Spike. They adored him. If I dated anyone else, I’d have to be in by a certain hour. Not with Spike. He was so trusted. My parents never set a curfew when l went out with him. I guess I always knew I’d marry him,” she says. One evening during their senior year, Harding was babysitting when Casey came by for a visit. He gave her an engagement ring – paid for with summer jobs as an ironworker and at what would later become Archbald Pothole State Park. In June 1953, they were married by the Reverend Patrick Cummings of Holy Cross who described them as an “extraordinary, special couple.”

Next was George Washington University Law School in the nation’s capital, which Casey attended on a trustee scholarship. “We were poor. Life was simple. But, we were so happy,” remembers Ellen Casey. Along came their first child, Margaret, called Margi, in 1954. Casey finished law school in 1956 and, after a brief hiatus in Scranton winding up the affairs of his father – his hero – who had died, he launched his career with the Washington, D.C., law firm of Covington and Burling. Familial roots grow deep in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region, and by the late 1950s the Caseys returned to Scranton. In 1962, the same year that the family moved into its home on North Washington Avenue, Robert Casey was elected to the state senate after being sought after by Lackawanna County Democratic Party leaders.

Eight children were born to the Caseys between 1954 and 1971. In addition to Margi there was Mary Ellen, Kathleen, called Kate, Robert Jr., Christopher, Erin, Patrick, and Matthew. The children kept the Casey household very busy – as did their father’s political career. State Senator Robert P. Casey formed a law partnership in 1965 with Scranton attorneys James J. Haggerty and Frank J. McDonnell. (Haggerty later served in Governor Casey’s administration as secretary of the Commonwealth and as general counsel.) Soon, however, he grew restless and decided to launch a bid for governor. “He was thirty-four years old. In hindsight, it was daring,” Ellen Casey says. Casey lost the primary to television cable mogul Milton J. Shapp, although Shapp would lose in 1966 to Governor William W. Scranton’s lieutenant governor, Raymond P. Shafer. When it came to the ups and downs of tumultuous political life, Casey didn’t go it alone. There was, after all, his large and loving family. That year daughter Mary Ellen provided some perspective – and drew a chuckle or two – on his loss when she asked her father;”You mean you are not going to be governor? You are just going to be a regular lawyer?”

In 1968, after serving as first vice president of the Pennsylvania State Constitutional Convention, Casey launched a campaign for auditor general and won by more than 440,000 votes. He recruited certified public accountants to investigate suspected cases of waste and abuse of taxpayer dollars and put an end to the tradition of auditor general employees contributing to political party coffers. The job was highly relevant, not just to Casey, but to his children as well. “The first time I realized that my father was doing something unusual was at his first inauguration as auditor general,” says Bob Casey Jr., who followed his father’s path to the auditor general’s office nearly thirty years later. ‘I remember thinking’ he has important things to say and people are listening to him.”

Complete honesty and deflection of even the slightest hint of conflicting interests permeated not only the auditor general’s office, but the Casey household as well. “One summer in my late teens,” remembers Margi, “I was going to take a job at a public library in Scranton. I hadn’t yet accepted the job when Dad found out that the library received some state money. Well, that was the end of it. 1 wasn’t permitted to take the job.” One Philadelphia newspaper suggested that the Commonwealth’s auditor general was “too honest a politician,” a label Casey wore proudly.

Casey took politics very seriously. “He was always seen as a very serious man. And, he was. But he also had another side that many didn’t see,” recalls his widow. Silly family antics and ‘inside’ honor would result in “hearty belly laughs,” Margi says. He would roar at the working class humor of Jackie Gleason and Art Carney in The Honeymooners and at the zany antics of Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther movies. “He’d find it very humorous that one person could drive another mad in simple ways and in everyday life,” Chris recalls.

In addition to politics, sports remained a passion for Bob Casey. He would retire to the basement to smoke an occasional cigar and watch football or his favorite basketball team, the Boston Celtics. He would join the neighborhood kids and his own in an occasional driveway game of hoops where his oft-repeated expression to the person with the ball was “give-n­-go.” His tough reputation transcended politics and kids in the neighborhood saw him as a no-nonsense figure. Curiously, though, “he really wasn’t a strict disciplinarian. He had that reputation. But, with us, he wasn’t like that,” Pat reflects. He played golf occasionally and, in his youth, the violin. He treasured family excursions to see the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Yankees. Cities held a special appeal to him, particularly New York, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh.

In 1970, at thirty-eight years old, Casey launched a second bid for governor. Once again the Democratic Party endorsed him, described by the Philadelphia Daily News as the “oldest young man in Pennsylvania politics.” The primary once again eluded him. Shapp won that year. The loss was difficult, but the Caseys weathered it well. Wanting to shield the children from the public spotlight on election night, Margi remembers that her father asked their mother to “take them down the back steps” at campaign headquarters. The next morning life went on as usual. The children got up and went to school. Bob Casey was off to work and Ellen Casey to managing the household. His loss was, in part, compensated by reelection as auditor general in 1972 by a half-million-vote margin in an election where Republican presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon carried Pennsylvania by nearly a million votes. Two years Later former Governor William W. Scranton attempted to persuade Casey to run for governor as a Republican against his rival Shapp. Although flattered by the suggestion, he promptly turned it down. Wm or lose, he would remain a Democrat, as had all the Caseys.

In the seventies, Casey was away from home and family a great deal. Traveling the state meant long days and many miles. Sometimes a few of the children would accompany him. He would make it a point to be home a few nights a week for dinner and family time and always made it a priority to attend the children’s school or community events. He also telephoned them frequently. With the expiration of his second term as auditor general in early 1977, he set his sights on the governor’s office again. This time, however, the campaign proved particularly difficult.

A candidate in Pittsburgh, also named Robert P. Casey, launched a campaign for lieutenant governor. Adding to voter confusion, a Robert J. Casey stumped for a seat in Congress to represent the Pitts­burgh area. And, although his name was not on the ballot that year, a Robert E. Casey of Cambria County served as state treasurer. When the primary ballots were counted, former Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flallerty and the “other” Robert P. Casey secured sufficient votes to head the ticket for governor and lieutenant governor, but they lost the general election in November to Dick Thornburgh and William W. Scranton III. The Caseys took the loss hard, but, by the early 1980s, Casey “was determined that 1978 wouldn’t be his political obituary,” remembers son Chris.

Meanwhile, practicing law with the Dilworth firm provided a venue for his passion and skills. “He was very good at the law. He could see all sides of an issue then argue his position convincingly,” Chris recalls. “He enjoyed the law. But, he wasn’t fulfilled at it. He was still restless. Politics is what fulfilled him,” says Ellen Casey.

By 1984, the talk in political circles contended that Dick Thornburgh’s heir apparent was Scranton. Bob Casey’s intuition told him something different. “Voters are not impressed by ‘scions,’ least of all the voters of a working-class state like Pennsylvania. They don’t like to be taken for granted,” was his take. On the lawn at Lake Ariel that summer of 1985, Chris and Bob Jr. encouraged him to run again. Even though Ellen, Margi, Kate, Maiy Ellen, and Erin were more apprehensive about a fourth try, they knew it was the right – and only – thing to do. Patrick and Matthew concurred.

Casey drew on his own past and family life to define his 1986 race against Scran­ton for the governor’s office. “The problems our family faces are Pennsylvania’s problems,” he told an inquisitive media. “Ellen and [ have raised eight kids. We’ve been very lucky and now it’s time to give something back to Pennsylvania.” Advertisements featured him shooting basketball with Philadelphia grade schoolers, and highlighted working people who asked only “for a fair shake” in the wake of a sagging economy. Advertisements reminded voters that he was a “son of the coal country” and that “Bob Casey’s coming back. And, so is Pennsylvania.”

The odds appeared long. His campaign had spent time and money to defeat primary challenger, Philadelphia District Attorney Edward G. Rendell. By the summer of 1986 the Real Bob Casey Committee was in debt and down in the polls. One way to beat the odds was to bring in experts like Pat Cadell and James Carville.

Another strategy was to make the campaign a family affair. “As a family, we made the decision that I would run for this office,” Casey told the media. Sons Bob and Pat worked the field in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Kate managed his schedule and raised money. Margi, Mary Ellen, and Erin worked the telephones and traveled the Commonwealth campaigning for their father. Among other assignments, Chris helped with fundraising and traveled with his dad, while Matt worked at campaign headquarters after school. Always steady, there was Ellen Casey campaigning, providing moral support, and influencing the effort in countless subtle ways.

Time magazine called it a “Coal town contest” – Scranton and Casey both hailed from the Lackawanna County seat of Scranton. The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that the race couldn’t regionally divide voters, a factor common in the history of statewide politics. This race would be fought on the issues and on the future direction of the Commonwealth, not on the hometowns of the candidates. The New York Times likened it to nothing less than a “war of generations” – the thirty­-nine-year-old Scranton pitted against the fifty-four-year-old Casey. Several weeks before the November 4 election, Casey polled even with Scranton. Some suggested he was ahead. Seldom in state politics had the outcome of a gubernatorial race seemed so uncertain.

Election night was extraordinarily frenetic and, at times, tense in the Casey household. About midnight a major television network confirmed an earlier projection that Robert P. Casey had won, and the results were confirmed. by campaign strategists. Casey hugged his wife, sons, and daughters. A dream of twenty years – shared by them all – had come true. On a cold Tuesday, January 20, 1987, he was sworn in as Pennsylvania’s forty-fifth governor. His speech on the steps of the State Capitol echoed a familiar theme. “Like a good family,” he proclaimed, “we will be strong and compassionate. Good families work together, stay together, grow together, and move into the future together. The family of Pennsylvania must leave no one out and no one behind.”

Eight years in the governor’s office – he was re-elected in 1991 by the largest margin in gubernatorial election history – offered the opportunity to move state government in novel directions. Casey believed that government had an obligation to sustain and protect children, adults, families, workers, businesses, and the environment. Doing so would ensure stability in the wake of economic transition. Among other initiatives, his administration invested more than three billion dollars to create new jobs; cut business taxes; implemented numerous programs for children, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program and a statewide adoption network; made significant investments in the state’s transportation and education infrastructures; created the PENNVEST loan and grant program to help communities improve public water and sewer systems; made the PENNFREE anti-drug and alcohol abuse program a model for the nation; created sweeping auto insurance reforms; and implemented far-reaching environmental initiatives, including the largest recycling program in the nation.

During the last few years of his governorship, Casey not only made political history, but he also made medical history. Early in 1991, physicians confirmed that he had a life-threatening disease, Appalachian familial amyloidosis, a genetic condition in which proteins invade major organs, eventually destroying them. Initially he was offered little hope. No cure or treatment existed. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center physicians, however, became convinced that a liver transplant would extend his life and, possibly, cure the disease. Complicating matters was that further testing indicated that his heart was nearly destroyed by the progress of the disease.

In June 1993, Governor Casey underwent a rare heart-liver transplant and became one of the few people in the world to survive for several years following the procedure. He returned to the governor’s office in December of that year. Some likened him to a walking miracle.

As his term came to an end in January 1995, a Philadelphia newspaper opined, “By nearly any measure, Casey leaves Pennsylvania a better place than it was eight years ago.” When Governor Tom Ridge took office, the Caseys returned to their home in Scranton’s Green Ridge neighborhood. “It made perfect sense that they came home to Scranton,” says son Matthew. “This was their life. Back they came to the house where they raised a family and had so many good memories.” Although he seriously considered a run for the presidency after leaving Harrisburg, his precarious health would dissuade him. He remained, as he had always been through the ups and downs of life, closest to family.

Private citizenship afforded him the opportunity to publish the story of his life. In his autobiography, Fighting for Life, Casey spelled out the philosophy that guided him through four decades of public service. “I believe the most important quality a person can bring to political office is a passion for justice and a sense of outrage in the face of injustice,” he wrote. ‘I£ you can pass lightly over wrongs done to your neighbor, if you can shrug off the suffering of others – especially children – then you are miscast for any position of public responsibility. You should return to private pursuits where less is expected of you. You’re in the wrong business. If you once had that sense of outrage and lost it somewhere along your climb to power, you’re finished – done for. No matter how far up you climb, you’ll have lost your bearings.” It was a philosophy that, indeed, had much to do with who he was and from where he came.

Still suffering from the long-term effects of amyloidosis, Governor Casey passed away on Tuesday, May 30, 2000, and was laid to rest in St. Catherine’s Cemetery in Moscow, southeast of Scranton. In various circles Bob Casey remains a legend, a role model, and the stuff of folklore. To his family, he is all of these things – in addition to being a father, husband, and grandfather. “My father fulfilled all of his obligations with no regrets, no looking back,” Chris reflected shortly after his passing. To Erin, “my father taught us integrity, compassion and, most of all, to never give up.” “We miss him so much,” says Ellen Harding Casey. “We are so proud of what he did for people. He sincerely wanted to help people. He wanted to make a difference. He did that and so much more. That’s what his whole life was about.”

 

 

Robert P. Casey Collection

On 2002, the family of Robert P. Casey (1932-2000) donated the governor’s personal papers measuring eighty-six cubic feet, to the Pennsylvania State Archives, and a collection of objects and artifacts to The State Museum of Pennsylvania.

The Robert P. Casey Collection, designated Manuscript Group (MG) 406 by the Pennsylvania State Archives, contains personal correspondence, notes, photographs, videotapes, campaign materials, inaugural memorabilia, heart and liver transplant records, and related ephemera. MG 406 also includes items relating to Casey’s post-gubernatorial career, including records of the Campaign for the American Family.

The official records of his administration, part of Record Group (RG) 10, the Records of the Office of the Governor, contain correspondence on a wide variety of subjects; issues files consisting of correspondence detailing specific concerns, such as acid rain, AIDS, automobile insurance reform, library funding, welfare reform, pollution, domestic violence, daycare, unemployment compensation, amusement tax, and the death penalty; press releases; official proclamations; and subject files.

 

For Further Reading

Beers, Paul. Pennsylvania Politics Yesterday and Today. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1980.

____. The Pennsylvania Sampler. Harrisburg: The Stackpole Company, 1970.

Casey, Robert P. Fighting for Life. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1996.

Starzl, Thomas E. The Puzzle People: Memoirs of a Transplant Surgeon. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992.

 

Kenneth C. Wolensky is a historian with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg. The author wishes to thank the Casey family and former members of the governor’s staff for granting interviews and lending photographs. The author also consulted the Robert P. Casey papers (RG 10 and MG 406) housed at the Pennsylvania State Archives.