PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Former Pennsylvania Sen. Richard S. Schweiker, a liberal Republican who was the vice presidential candidate in Ronald Reagan's unsuccessful 1976 campaign and later served in his Cabinet, has died. He was 89.
Schweiker, of McLean, Virginia, died Friday at Atlantic Care Regional Medical Center in Pomona, New Jersey, son Richard Schweiker Jr. said Monday.
Schweiker, a physical fitness buff who ran two miles daily at the peak of his career, headed the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the first two years of the Reagan administration.
A low-key lawmaker, Schweiker was considered one of the most liberal Republicans in the Senate when Reagan shocked the GOP faithful — and Schweiker himself — by naming him to the 1976 ticket.
"My independence is my lifestyle," Schweiker said shortly before the Republican National Convention in Kansas City, Missouri, where supporters toted signs proclaiming "I Like Schweik."
"I'm not a Republican stereotype," Schweiker said then. "And I'm not the kind of guy who can get the word from the party and vote for something that I don't believe in."
The Reagan-Schweiker platform ultimately failed to win enough delegates to overcome then-President Gerald Ford. In 1980, Reagan chose George H.W. Bush as his running-mate.
Elected to the U.S. House in 1960 and the U.S. Senate in 1968, Schweiker was staunchly pro-labor and outspoken in his opposition to the Vietnam War. He angered President Richard Nixon by voting against key White House programs.
But he had a conservative streak in him as well, and began leaning more to the right after 1976. Schweiker generally opposed abortion and gun control, and favored only limited busing to achieve racial integration in neighborhood schools.
After two Senate terms, Schweiker did not seek re-election in 1980. Instead, Reagan brought Schweiker aboard in his first administration, entrusting him with one of the largest federal agencies, the Health and Human Services Department.
Dubbing his new home "the people's department," Schweiker trimmed federal welfare rolls and put preventive medicine at the top of the nation's health agenda while trying to overhaul Medicare and Social Security.
Just over two years later, Schweiker resigned to head up the Washington-based trade group American Council of Life Insurance. He spent nearly 12 years there before retiring.
In a 2000 Associated Press interview, Schweiker recalled that his brief time in the spotlight as Reagan's chosen running-mate created "a gigantic media explosion. ... Everything I said was under scrutiny."
He lamented the rise in partisanship in recent years.
"I was a World War II veteran. Our primary objective was to get things done and solve problems. The partisanship and heated rhetoric that have taken over the political landscape wasn't always in vogue," he said.
Schweiker Jr., 48, said his father was strongly influenced by his faith and his parents, who led him to believe that his purpose was to serve God and his fellow man. He said that and the death of his brother on Okinawa during World War II were the driving forces prompting him to go into public service.
"Colleagues would view him as someone who worked well with others and across the aisle, because he believed you should put your country against at times your party's viewpoints," his son said.
Schweiker was born in 1926 in the Philadelphia suburb of Norristown. He was raised in what he once described as "an atmosphere of typical Pennsylvania Dutch frugality" although his father, a former bricklayer, founded the prosperous American Olean Tile Co. The company, which became the nation's second-largest ceramic tile manufacturer, was acquired by Dallas-based Dal-Tile in 1995.
Schweiker enlisted in the Navy at 17, serving two years on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific during World War II. In 1950, he graduated from Penn State University and spent the next decade working his way up the ranks of his father's business.
He was a bachelor in his early 30s when his mother, Blanche Schultz Schweiker, gave him a picture she cut out of a newspaper, telling him: "That's the sort of girl you ought to marry."
A blind date was arranged, and in 1955 Schweiker married Claire Joan Coleman, who appeared on television as Miss Claire on Philadelphia's version of the "Romper Room" children's series.
Schweiker, who was not related to former Pennsylvania Gov. Mark Schweiker, recently spent a week with family in Ocean City, New Jersey.
"It was fortunate that he had all five of his children and their spouses there, and he saw 21 of his 23 grandchildren and his one great-grandchild that week, just prior to his passing," Richard Schweiker Jr. said.