Luis A. Ferré, Who Pushed Puerto Rican Statehood, Dies at 99
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Luis A. Ferré, a dominant force in the politics, economy and culture of Puerto Rico for much of the last century and a tireless proponent of statehood, died yesterday in San Juan. He was 99.
Mr. Ferré (pronounced fay-RAY) served one term as governor of Puerto Rico from 1969 through 1972, but his influence extended much further. It included ownership of one of Puerto Rico's largest businesses; extensive philanthropy, including a major art museum he founded in Ponce; and political savvy that made him a friend of presidents and a frequent Congressional witness well into his 90's.
He never abandoned his dream of seeing Puerto Rico become the 51st state, even as voters in nonbinding referendums in 1967, 1993 and 1998 favored keeping its current status as a commonwealth.
Mr. Ferré forcefully argued that Puerto Rico was culturally and economically hamstrung by what he called its "colonial status." He fought those who contended that the island needed special tax advantages that would be lost if it became a state by arguing that the economy of a Puerto Rican state would quickly improve.
But Mr. Ferré rejected independence, in part because Puerto Ricans are so embedded in American life and American life in them.
"Not only are Puerto Ricans citizens by birth, but one would be hard-pressed to find a Puerto Rican without a sister in New York or a son in Chicago, a cousin in Orlando or a daughter in Honolulu or Oklahoma City," he told a United States Senate committee in 1998.
Venerated as Don Luis and honored by having the freeway that crosses Puerto Rico from north to south named for him, Mr. Ferré showed a finely tuned political agility as well as an adherence to basic principles. He described himself as "revolutionary in my ideas, liberal in my objectives and conservative in my methods."
As a businessman, he and his brothers built a conglomerate that included the plant that supplied cement to build the hotels of Miami Beach. His buying of pre-Raphaelite art in the 1950's for his museum, Museo de Arte de Ponce, turned out to be inspired, Forbes magazine said in 1993.
"The scholars and critics all called it kitsch," Mr. Ferré recalled in the Forbes interview. "Everyone thought I was crazy to buy them."
He carried an aura of culture and erudition; as an accomplished pianist educated at the New England Conservatory of Music, he made commercial classical recordings.
Luis Alberto Ferré was born in Ponce on Feb. 17, 1904, the second of four sons of Antonio Ferré y Bacallao and Mary Aguayo Casals. His mother was a cousin of the cellist Pablo Casals.
He was born just six years after the United States seized Puerto Rico from Spain. He did not recall any childhood conversations about that, but he remembered with pride when Puerto Ricans were granted citizenship in 1917, The Puerto Rican Herald said in 2000.
His father, an engineer of French descent, began building Ferré Industries in 1918 by opening a small foundry. After graduating from public elementary school in Ponce and high school in Morristown, N.J., Luis went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a master's degree in electrical engineering. He returned to supervise organization and labor relations in the company.
In World War II, the company used a loan from the United States to found a cement plant to supply cement for building an American naval base. They got in the Miami Beach cement market by buying a Florida company.
Puerto Rico's governors were appointed by the United States president until the early 1940's, when the Roosevelt administration began to back the reforms of Luis Muñoz Marín and his Popular Democratic Party. In 1947, Congress authorized the election of the governor, and the next year Mr. Muñoz Marín won the first of his four elections to the office.
In 1952, under Mr. Muñoz Marín, Puerto Rico became a commonwealth. His main opposition came from the Republican Statehood Party, on whose ticket Mr. Ferré was elected a representative at large in the island legislature in 1952. Mr. Ferré twice ran unsuccessfully for governor on this party's ticket.
In 1967, Mr. Ferré formed his own party, the New Progressive Party, and won the governorship in 1968 with a plurality because of a split in the opposition.
One of Mr. Ferré's first acts as governor was to name the first woman to serve in a governor's cabinet. He also started a number of regional economic reforms, but labor unrest damaged his efforts to consolidate electoral success. He was defeated by a pro-commonwealth candidate in the 1972 elections.
Mr. Ferré went on to serve as president of the Puerto Rico Senate from 1977 to 1980. But his greater legacy was making the New Progressive Party a powerful political force. He paved the way for statehood advocates like Carlos Romero Barceló, Hernán Padilla and Pedro Rosselló.
Mr. Ferré's first wife, Lorencita Ramírez de Arellano,
died in 1970. He is survived by his wife, Tiody de Jesús; his son,
Antonio; and his daughter, the novelist Rosario Ferré, author of
"The House on the Lagoon," in which a character is modeled on Mr. Ferré.