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Ex-Puerto Rican Governor Ferre Dies at 99

IAN JAMESOctober 22, 2003

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) _ Luis A. Ferre, a philanthropist and former governor of Puerto Rico who became the patriarch of the U.S. territory’s statehood movement, died Tuesday. He was 99.

Ferre, who had been hospitalized for weeks with pneumonia, died of respiratory failure, with his family at his side, said Jose Serra, a spokesman for the family.

The venerated ``Don Luis″ played a prominent role in Puerto Rican politics since World War II, chasing the ideal of U.S. statehood for Puerto Rico while overseeing his charitable foundation.

``Puerto Rico has lost a man of principles who dedicated his life to his ideals,″ said Gov. Sila Calderon, who ordered flags flown at half-staff.

San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini called him ``an engineer of dreams and an executor of great works.″

Ferre was a member of the assembly that produced Puerto Rico’s 1952 constitution, he founded the pro-statehood New Progressive Party in 1967 and was governor from 1969 through 1972, when he lost to pro-commonwealth candidate Rafael Hernandez Colon.

He stayed involved in politics, testifying before U.S. congressional panels in favor of statehood and participating in presidential nominating conventions. He remained chairman of the island’s branch of the Republican Party and served as Puerto Rico’s Senate president from 1977-80.

``He’s a friend and I like him very much,″ former President Bush told The Associated Press on Oct. 10.

Born Feb. 17, 1904, in the southern city of Ponce, Ferre was the grandson of a French engineer who worked on the Panama Canal before settling in Cuba. His father, Antonio, moved to Puerto Rico as a young man and married Maria Aguayo Casals, a cousin of the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who lived in Puerto Rico.

Ferre studied engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and trained at the New England Conservatory of Music. He was an accomplished classical pianist.

He and his brother started the Puerto Rico Cement Co. in Ponce, the source of the family’s wealth. Ferre also founded the city’s library, opened the Ponce Museum of Art, and bought the newspaper, which was on the brink of folding. His son moved the newspaper to San Juan, and El Nuevo Dia is now the island’s biggest daily with a circulation of about 200,000. ``My theory was that a city without a newspaper is a city without a soul,″ he once said.

It was during his university days, Ferre said, that he developed a passion for the ``American way of democracy″ and eventual statehood for Puerto Rico, which was seized as war booty from Spain in 1898.

As a commonwealth, Puerto Ricans receive some federal benefits, vote in U.S. presidential primaries and do not pay federal taxes. They cannot vote for president, however, and send only one representative to Congress who can vote only in committee.

In backing statehood, Ferre said it would be natural for Puerto Ricans to join the United States ``on an equal footing, as equal citizens.″

``We speak Spanish but we think American,″ he told the Puerto Rican radio station WOSO in an interview four years ago. ``We don’t want to be a colony, we don’t want to be inferior. We want to be equal.″

Statehood lost in nonbinding referendums in 1967, 1993 and 1998, but Ferre never abandoned his dream.

``I hope I will live to see a final meeting of the minds between Puerto Rico and statehood,″ Ferre said after the 1998 vote. ``But if I don’t live that long, I am certain it will happen.″

Ferre’s first wife, Lorencita Ramirez de Arellano, died in 1970. He is survived by his second wife, Tiody de Jesus; and two children from his first marriage: a son, Antonio; and a daughter, Rosario, the author of ``The House On The Lagoon,″ a 1995 National Book Award finalist.

Ferre’s body will lie in state at the Capitol in San Juan on Wednesday. He will be buried in Ponce on Thursday.

___

Associated Press writer Leonardo Aldridge in San Juan contributed to this report.

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