Robert Edgar, former Delco congressman, 69

Posted: April 25, 2013

IMAGINE THE horror of Delaware County's entrenched and cocky Republican organization when a Democrat was elected to represent it in Congress.

A Democrat!

It was 1974 and Bob Edgar was in the right place at the right time. The nation was smarting from the Watergate scandal that destroyed Richard Nixon. The county GOP was split, and along came this good-looking Methodist clergyman with sincerity and concern shining in his eyes.

When he beat Steve McEwen, whom the GOP had offered the voters after dumping incumbent Lawrence Williams, Edgar became the first Democrat elected from the 7th Congressional District in 36 years.

To make matters worse for the party, Edgar went on to defeat every candidate thrown at him over the next 12 years, stopped only when he tried for the U.S. Senate in 1986 and lost to Sen. Arlen Specter.

Robert William Edgar, a minister who left politics in 1986 and launched a new career of public service with Common Cause, the nonpartisan government-watchdog organization, died of a massive heart attack Tuesday while running on a treadmill in his home in Burke, Va. He was 69.

His wife, the former Merle Deaver, said Bob had been in excellent health and ran several miles every day on the treadmill.

"He had told Common Cause he would work with it for two more years," she said. "He felt that his work was not done."

A liberal Democrat who believed in good government and serving the people, Edgar was an anomaly in Delaware County politics, long complacent under the ironfisted rule of John J. McClure and his "War Board," which brooked no interference with GOP dominance.

Critics said Edgar owed his election to the Watergate disaster that turned Americans against the Republican Party, but what about those five re-elections? He must have been doing something right.

"He worked tirelessly," his wife said. "He was constantly in the district. He put his offices in locations where people could get to them by public transportation. He held public meetings and urged people to come and scream at him if they wanted to. And the press loved him. He was always available to reporters."

But maybe a lot of his appeal was, as his wife said, the fact that he was "just a really, really nice guy."

It may be true that nice guys don't win pennants, but Bob Edgar proved that nice guys can win elections.

"He was an extraordinary person," said Mary Boyle, vice president of communications for Common Cause. "He was kind, compassionate, committed, an inspiring leader. He was tireless; he had the energy of a 30-year-old.

"He was a proud Democrat, and proud of having been elected in a Republican stronghold."

"We are deeply saddened and shaken today by the passing of Bob Edgar," said Common Cause board chairman Robert Reich. "Bob will be remembered for his decency, kindness, compassion and humor. His deep commitment to social justice and strengthening our democracy is his greatest gift to Common Cause and the nation.

During his six terms in Congress, Bob fought to improve public transportation and eliminate wasteful water projects - angering some Southern state Congress members to whom such projects were tasty pork - and authored the Community Right to Know provision of the Super Fund toxic-cleanup legislation.

He also served on the House Select Committee on Assassinations that investigated the slayings of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

When veterans of the unpopular Vietnam War returned, often to public disdain, Bob took up their cause on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. He worked on issues concerning Agent Orange problems and promoted readjustment counseling to treat post-traumatic-stress disorder.

One reason Edgar left politics after his loss to Specter was his horror at the amount of money that had to be raised in political campaigns.

He was appalled to realize that he had to raise at least $2.5 million to be competitive against Specter. As head of Common Cause, he tried to arrest the influence of money in American politics.

Edgar was born in Philadelphia to Leroy and Marion Edgar. He graduated from Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa., and received a master of divinity degree from the Theological School of Drew University in Madison, N.J. He was then ordained a Methodist minister.

He received a certificate in pastoral psychiatry from Hahnemann University Hospital in 1969.

Bob served some small churches while in college, and became pastor of the East Falls Methodist Church for three years. He was the Protestant chaplain at Drexel University when he decided to run for Congress.

While at Drexel, he founded an emergency-treatment center in West Philadelphia for women who had no place to go for help. It is now called the People's Emergency Center and serves the homeless.

He became president of Claremont College of Theology in Claremont, Calif., in 1990, and served for 10 years. He became president of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in 2000.

Edgar and his wife met as teenagers at a church retreat. They were married in August 1964.

"He was devoted to his Christian beliefs, and he lived his beliefs," his wife said. "He was an optimist. He believed that anything could be done no matter what."

Besides his wife, he is survived by three sons, Robert W. Edgar Jr., T. David Edgar and Andrew Edgar; two brothers, Ralph and Richard Edgar; his mother, Marion Edgar, and eight grandchildren.

Services: A memorial service is being arranged.

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