TopVet: Tom Ridge

Tom Ridge

Former Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge stood tall as a key player in diffusing our nation’s global challenges, as the Bronze Star recipient earned a reputation of being a fiercely focused taskmaster, tough-on-crime legislator and loyal ally to President Bush. He now serves in the private sector as a boardmember to Home Depot.

Born Aug. 26, 1945, in Pittsburgh’s Steel Valley, Gov. Ridge was raised by a working class family in veterans’ public housing in Erie, while his father worked several jobs, including soap salesman.

He earned a scholarship to Harvard, graduating with honors in 1967, an accomplishment achieved by supplementing his scholarship as a golf caddy and day laborer, earning $3.65 an hour through the Laborers Union.

Then, following his desire to become a lawyer, he entered The Dickinson School of Law, where he was drafted into the U.S. Army during his first year.

Flash forward to September 11, 2001, with a nation facing a national and global crisis, as two of its cherished icons of commerce (New York’s World Trade Center) and defense (the Pentagon) were attacked by terrorists. President Bush, seeking to bolster the confidence of a wounded yet resolute nation, looked very close to his side to regain a sense of security, tapping Ridge to lead one of the greatest governmental restructuring in U.S. history: creating the Department of Homeland Security.

In his speech announcing that the Pennsylvania governor had been chosen to lead the homeland security effort on Sept. 20, 2001, Bush described Ridge as "a military veteran, an effective governor, a true patriot, a trusted friend." Ridge and the president became close friends when Ridge volunteered to help with former President George H.W. Bush’s campaign in 1988.

"It is an honor to serve your country at any time, but more so now than ever," then departing-Governor Ridge said at a news conference on the steps of the state Capitol in Harrisburg. "I’m saddened that this job is even necessary. But it is." Bush’s charge to the nation’s new director of homeland defense was to develop and coordinate a comprehensive national strategy to strengthen protections against terrorist threats or attacks in the United States.

"We’ll beat these guys," Ridge once told a meeting of mayors. "Those who attacked us thought it would crush our spirit, bring us to our knees, make us cower with fear. But they misjudged us -- and not just a little."

Trained for the infantry, Ridge’s service included a tour of duty in Vietnam. A week after his assignment to a unit operating in the Duc Pho region, Ridge came under enemy fire. The official Army report says that Staff Sergeant Thomas Ridge distinguished himself in the battle, protecting his troops and inflicting casualties upon the enemy. Later, he was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor for his actions during this operation. Ridge’s Vietnam tour ended after seven months when he suffered a burst appendix. He was sent back to the United States for recuperation, and after two years in uniform, was honorably discharged.

Returning to Pennsylvania from Vietnam, he returned to Dickinson to earn his law degree, entered private practice before becoming assistant district attorney in Erie County.

In 1982, he was the first combat Vietnam Veteran elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and was overwhelmingly re-elected six times before becoming Governor of Pennsylvania.

In an interview with ABC News, a friend said Ridge came home with a wary world view. "He saw combat. He saw death. When he went to Congress, he vowed that he would not allow that to happen again to our military," said the friend, Homer Mosco.

To ensure Pennsylvania was home to the jobs of the future, the Governor created industry-led Greenhouse initiatives in advanced computing technologies and the life sciences.

Seeking to improve education and health for future generations, he signed into law the Education Empowerment Act, to help more than a quarter-million children in Pennsylvania’s lowest-performing schools. His education technology initiatives brought "anytime, anywhere" learning to Pennsylvanians from pre-school to adult education.

Additionally, during his years in the Governor’s office (1995-2001) the number of children receiving free or low-cost health care through Pennsylvania’s nationally recognized Children’s Health Insurance Program increased by 145 percent increase. Yet, despite the cost of new programs, Governor Ridge managed to cut State taxes every year of the six years he was in office.

Governor Ridge and his wife, Michele, the former executive director of the Erie County Library system, have two children, Lesley and Tommy.

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