Thomas F. Eagleton, former U.S. senator and WUSTL professor of public affairs, dies at 77

Thomas F. Eagleton, who joined the Washington University faculty after serving nearly two decades in the U.S. Senate, died Sunday, March 4, 2007, at St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond Heights, Mo. He was 77 years old.

Eagleton had been in declining health for several years. The cause of death was a combination of heart, respiratory and other problems that overwhelmed his weakened system, according to an obituary issued on behalf of his family.

Thomas Eagleton
Thomas Eagleton

Eagleton served as the Thomas F. Eagleton University Professor of Public Affairs and Political Science in Arts & Sciences from 1987 until 2000, when he was named professor emeritus. Randall Calvert, Ph.D., professor of political science in Arts & Sciences, now holds the Eagleton professorship.

A Democratic senator from Missouri from 1968-1987, Eagleton is best known for writing a 1973 amendment to a defense appropriations bill to cut off funding for the bombing of Cambodia, effectively ending America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. He subsequently described the passage of this amendment as the proudest moment of his career.

At the University, Eagleton team-taught a popular interdisciplinary course on business and politics with Murray L. Weidenbaum, Ph.D., the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor and professor of economics in Arts & Sciences.

Cross-listed in the John M. Olin School of Business and the departments of Economics and Political Science, both in Arts & Sciences, the “Eaglebaum” course was known for playful intellectual sparring matches contrasting the views of Eagleton, a liberal Democrat, with those of Weidenbaum, former chief economic advisor to Republican President Reagan.

A public memorial service for Thomas F. Eagleton will be held at 11 a.m. March 10 at Saint Francis Xavier College Church, 3628 Lindell Blvd.

Eagleton served in public office for 30 years. During 18 years in the U.S. Senate, he was active in matters dealing with foreign relations, intelligence, defense, education, health care and the environment. A longtime partner in the St. Louis law firm of Thompson Coburn LLP, he was a chief negotiator for a coalition of local business interests that lured the Los Angeles Rams football team to St. Louis.

The author of three books on politics, Eagleton also served for many years as a Sunday columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and as political commentator for KSDK-TV. His news analysis commentaries on U.S. policy and international affairs have appeared in many of the nation’s leading newspapers.

Eagleton was born in St. Louis Sept. 4, 1929, the second son of prominent attorney Mark D. Eagleton and Zitta Swanson Eagleton. He was raised near Tower Grove Park. He was educated at Saint Louis Country Day School, Amherst College, Harvard Law School and Oxford University. He served in the United States Navy.

In 1956, Eagleton was elected circuit attorney of the City of St. Louis at age 27. He was elected attorney general of Missouri in 1960 (the youngest person ever to hold that office), lieutenant governor of Missouri in 1964 and U.S. senator from Missouri in 1968. He was 39 years old at the time of his election to the Senate. He was re-elected to the Senate in 1974 and 1980. In 1986 he declined to seek re-election.

In the Senate, Eagleton was one of the principal sponsors of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972, the bills that generally are regarded as the foundation of modern environmental protection.

In the area of education, Eagleton was a principal Senate proponent of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to improve educational opportunities for children with disabilities. He was a co-author of the bill that created Basic Educational Opportunity Grants (now known as Pell Grants) for college students. He was a principal Senate proponent of the creation of the National Institute on Aging.

Thomas F. Eagleton (right) with Randall L. Calvert, Ph.D., at the 2003 installation of Calvert as the Thomas F. Eagleton University Professor of Public Affairs and Political Science in Arts & Sciences.
Thomas F. Eagleton (right) with Randall L. Calvert, Ph.D., at the 2003 installation of Calvert as the Thomas F. Eagleton University Professor of Public Affairs and Political Science in Arts & Sciences.

Eagleton’s legislative legacy in Missouri includes the designation of eight federally protected wilderness areas in southern Missouri. He joined with Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., to advocate successfully for these designations.

Following his retirement from the Senate, Eagleton returned to St. Louis to teach, work on a variety of civic issues and practice law. He joined the law firm of Thompson & Mitchell (now Thompson Coburn), with which he remained associated until his death.

In 1991, Eagleton joined the board of the Truman Library in Independence and led a successful effort to raise new funds and revitalize the library. In 1993, President Clinton appointed Eagleton to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. As chairman of FANS Inc., Eagleton led the successful civic effort to relocate the Los Angeles Rams football team to St. Louis in 1995.

He remained politically active on behalf of many candidates and issues. In 2006, he was active in the campaign for Amendment 2 to the Missouri Constitution to protect stem cell research. He was a passionate collector of Expressionist and contemporary German art. He delighted in sharing this passion with the public through loans and gifts to various art museums.

In 2006, he taught a course on “The Presidency and the Constitution” at the Saint Louis University School of Law. He also taught at Webster University in St. Louis and Rockhurst College (now Rockhurst University) in Kansas City, Mo.

Eagleton’s three books are: “War and Presidential Power: A Chronicle of Congressional Surrender,” published in 1974; “Issues in Business and Government,” published in 1991; and an updated version of the secondary school textbook “Our Constitution and What It Means,” co-authored with former St. Louis School Superintendent William Kottmeyer and published in 1987. At the time of his death, Eagleton was working on a personal memoir of his career in public service.

Eagleton has received numerous awards, honors and honorary degrees throughout his career. In September 2000, the new federal courthouse in St. Louis was named the Thomas F. Eagleton United States Courthouse in his honor.

Eagleton is survived by his wife of 51 years, Barbara; two children, Terence and Christy; three grandchildren; and a younger brother, Kevin Eagleton. Eagleton’s older brother, Mark D. Eagleton, M.D., died in 1985.

In accordance with his wishes, Eagleton’s body has been donated to the School of Medicine for medical research. It was Eagleton’s wish that memorial contributions in lieu of flowers be directed either to Catholic Charities of St. Louis, 4532 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, Mo. 63108, or to the Democratic National Committee, 430 S. Capitol St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003.