Ferré, Luis Alberto (“Don Luis”)

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Ferré, Luis Alberto (“Don Luis”)

(b. 17 February 1904 in Ponce, Puerto Rico; d. 21 October 2003 in San Juan, Puerto Rico), engineer, entrepreneur, the third democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico, and an advocate for Puerto Rican statehood.

Ferré was born six years after the United States acquired Puerto Rico from Spain. His parents were Antonio Ferré Bacallao, a Cuban immigrant to Puerto Rico who had founded Puerto Rico Iron Works, and Maria Aguayo (Casals) Ferré, a cousin of the cellist Pablo Casals. Ferré’s grandfather, an engineer of French descent, helped to build the Panama Canal before moving to Cuba.

After going to public elementary school in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and becoming a U.S. citizen in 1917, when Puerto Ricans were granted that right, Ferré went to high school in Morristown, New Jersey. He then attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), earning a BS and an MS in mechanical engineering in 1924 and 1925, respectively. Ferré also studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and was an accomplished classical pianist, recording several albums of his own music. While living in Boston, Ferré developed an admiration for the “American way of democracy” and became interested in achieving statehood for his beloved homeland.

Ferré returned to Puerto Rico and began to transform his father’s business into a major industrial enterprise. He met and married Lorencita Ramirez de Arellano, and their marriage lasted until her death in 1970. They had two children: Antonio, who followed in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps, and Rosario, a professor and writer who was a National Book Award finalist in 1995. In 1937 Ferré founded the Ponce Public Library.

During World War II Ferré’s business purchased a Florida company that supplied cement for the construction of an American naval base and the building of hotels in Miami Beach. Ferré, already a successful businessman, was beginning his political life in 1940 when he made an unsuccessful bid for the position of mayor of Ponce. He also unsuccessfully attempted to assume the role of resident commissioner of Puerto Rico in 1948. In that same year, Ferré acquired El Día, an emerging newspaper that later became one of the most popular in Puerto Rico. Two years later, Ferré established the Luis A. Ferré Foundation.

In the 1950s Ferré acquired Puerto Rico Cement and Ponce Cement (the first Puerto Rican company to be named to the New York Stock Exchange) under Operation Bootstrap, an industrialization program begun by Governor Luis Munoz Marín and the Popular Democratic Party. Ferré also participated in the constitutional assembly that drafted the 1952 constitution for Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status. Also in 1952 Ferré ran for and won a seat in the Puerto Rican House of Representatives as a member of the Republican Statehood Party. He officially assumed his responsibilities on 11 January 1953. In 1959 Ferré founded the Museo de Arte de Ponce (Ponce Museum of Art), which features artwork from the Middle Ages to the present. The museum began with seventy-one paintings from Ferré’s personal collection. Among Ferré’s favorites were various pieces of Pre-Raphaelite art that he had purchased in the early 1950s.

In the early 1960s Ferré and one of his brothers organized funding for the development of La Sala de Puerto Rico in the Stratton Student Center at MIT. In 1962 Ferré was elected to membership in the MIT Corporation. In 1975 he was elected to life membership, and in 1979 he became a life member emeritus.

As a result of a disagreement within the ranks of the Republican Statehood Party surrounding the first political plebiscite for Puerto Rico’s status in 1967, Ferré established the New Progressive Party and became its leader. By this time Ferré had unsuccessfully sought the position of governor of Puerto Rico twice as a member of the Republican Statehood Party. As the leader of the New Progressive Party, however, he won a close race that marked the end of the twenty-eight-year political reign of the Popular Democratic Party. On 2 January 1969 Ferré became the third democratically elected governor of Puerto Rico. His contentment at having finally been elected was cut short by the unexpected death of his wife in 1970. Ferré served one term as governor, during which he led a number of economic reforms. He defended the federal minimum wage and supported granting workers a Christmas bonus. Ferré was also the first governor to name a woman to the cabinet. Ferré lost his reelection bid in 1972, and his term ended on 2 January 1973.

In 1976 Ferré was elected to the Puerto Rican Senate, and he remained there until 1985. He served as the senate president from 1977 until 1980. In 1991 Ferré participated in congressional hearings in the United States House of Representatives when Puerto Rico’s political status was in question once again. On 18 November 1991 Ferré received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civil distinction awarded by the United States president, then George H. W. Bush. Until that time only three other Puerto Ricans had received that honor. Ferré’s sister, the Roman Catholic nun Sister Isolina, was awarded the medal in 1999.

Ferré received honorary doctorates in law and music from Harvard University and the New England Conservatory of Music, respectively. He also received a National Society of Professional Engineers Award and an Americas Award and was honored by Aspira of America. The Center for Performing Arts and the Park of the Sciences in Puerto Rico both bear Ferré’s name, as does the freeway connecting San Juan and Ponce. The renowned sculptor Tomás Batista was commissioned to make a bust of Ferré, which is exhibited in the Ponce Museum of Art.

On 29 September 2003 Ferré was hospitalized in San Juan. He had a urinary tract infection and on 1 October 2003 underwent surgery for an intestinal blockage. He developed pneumonia before dying on the morning of 21 October 2003 of respiratory failure at the age of ninety-nine. Ferré’s body was taken to the Puerto Rican capitol in San Juan before being transported to the Museo de Arte de Ponce. A state funeral was held, and Ferré was buried with full military honors near the museum. Ferré was survived by his second wife, Tiody de Jesus, the first female state chair of the Republican Party of Puerto Rico, and by his children.

Ferré will be remembered not only as an advocate for Puerto Rican statehood, one of the few goals that went unfulfilled at his death, but as an exemplary politician, an extraordinary businessman, a patron of the arts, and a classical pianist—a true Renaissance man. Ferré once said, “I am revolutionary in my ideas, liberal in my objectives, and conservative in my methods.”

For a biography of Ferré in Spanish, see Rosario Ferré, Luis A. Ferré: Memorias de Ponce (1992). For further information about Ferré’s life, see Gerald Guiness, “The Full and Varied Life of Luis A. Ferré,” San Juan Star (15 Nov. 1992); and “Puerto Rico Profile: Luis A. Ferré,” Puerto Rico Herald (28 Jan. 2000). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Miami Herald (both 22 Oct. 2003).

Adriana C. Tomasino

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