John Chester Culver was born in Rochester, Minnesota and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he graduated from Franklin High School. His political aspirations began as early as his junior year in high school, when he was elected to the Iowa American Legion Hawkeye Boys State, a weeklong camp that gave youngsters a window into the inner workings of government.
He attended Harvard College, graduating with honors in 1954. He received the Lionel de Jersey Harvard Scholarship, which provided for a year of graduate study at Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, England.
He served for 39 months as an infantry officer in the United States Marine Corps. Following the completion of his military service, he returned to Harvard to obtain his law degree. While attending law school, Culver was the Graduate Secretary of the Phillips Brooks House Association, a volunteer group of students that mentored underprivileged children to become future leaders.
After his graduation from law school, Senator Culver served as Legislative Assistant to Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts). A year later he returned to his home state of Iowa and in 1964 was elected to the United States House of Representatives (D-Iowa 2nd District). During his 10 years in the House, he was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Government Operations Committee, and chairman of the Democratic Study Group. He also proposed and chaired a select Committee to modernize the House committee jurisdiction system.
In 1974, Culver was elected to the United States Senate where he served on the following committees: Armed Services, Judiciary, Environment and Public Works, and Small Business. He was the author of the Culver Commission, which modernized Senate administrative procedures.
In 1981, following his service in the U.S. Senate, he joined Arent Fox law firm in Washington, D.C., as a senior partner, where he was a member of the firm’s Executive Committee. He practiced law until December 2009.
From 1975 until the present day, Senator Culver has served on the Senior Advisory Committee of the Institute of Politics at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. For more than a decade he was Chairman of the Senior Advisory Committee and also, in 2010, was Interim Director of the Institute. He currently holds the position of Chair Emeritus.
Senator Culver served on the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute Board of Governors and as a director of the American Fund for Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, England.
He formerly served on the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board; the Council on Foreign Relations; the Trilateral Commission; the Lawyers Alliance for Nuclear Arms Control; the Board of Overseers of Harvard University; the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library Board of Directors; as Chairman of Very Special Arts; and as Co-Chair of the Twentieth Century Task Force on the Presidential Appointment Process.
Academic roles include: guest lecturer at Clare College, Cambridge University, England; visiting professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts; lecturer at the Washington School of Law at American University; Fellow at the Institute of Politics.
He is the co-author of American Dreamer, A Life of Henry A. Wallace, a highly regarded biography of this Iowan, a twentieth century giant in the fields of agriculture, plant genetics, politics, business and – above all – service. A one-man play and an Iowa Public Television documentary were based on the book.
HONORS AND RECOGNITION
In 2016 the Cedar Rapids City Council honored Senator Culver by naming a conference room in City Hall in his honor, marked with a plaque and a portrait.
In 2012 Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government created the John C. Culver Scholarship, to be awarded to an incoming student who, as an undergraduate, not only excelled academically but actively participated in an undergraduate political or policy organization.
In 2010, “with deep appreciation for your service to our organizations and inspiring example,” Harvard’s Institute of Politics and the Phillips Brook House Association created the “John Culver Award for Service and Politics,” given each year to a graduating senior who has shown commitment to both direct service and political engagement.
Also in 2010, the Congressional Award Joint Leadership Foundation gave Senator Culver its Leadership Award for his encouragement of civic engagement among youth, noting that:
“The Hawkeye State’s longtime public servant received the Leadership Award, thus joining the ranks of former award recipients Secretary Colin Powell and President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter. The Leadership Award is presented to individuals in the public sector who have provided critical support to the Foundation’s mission to challenge, encourage and honor the accomplishments of young Americans. For more than fifty years, Culver has been involved with countless charities and community initiatives advocating the importance of civic engagement.”
In 2008, Culver was presented with the Norman E. Borlaug Lifetime Achievement Award for Public Service “In recognition of a lifetime of exceptional leadership and achievement…beginning as a superb athlete and continuing through your dedicated career in public service and the Congress.”
In 1998, the Dubuque floodwall that he had secured funding for as a Member of Congress was dedicated in his name.
He has been the recipient of six honorary degrees. In 1981, when Grinnell College (Grinnell, Iowa) awarded Culver an honorary Doctor of Laws, its proclamation stated “Whatever one’s political persuasion, there is common consent that you manifest, certainly integrity and candor, but also the informed intelligence, searching concern, and readiness to act that have become so exemplary to anyone who wishes to serve on any level of government. Your work at the highest levels has indeed established a benchmark of initiative and accomplishment that has given new character and quality to the very concept of good government. We honor you for your intelligence, but also for vision; we honor you for public service, but also for your sense of the public trust; and we honor you not least for justice and valor as respectively the goal and the means of your life’s work.”
Senator Culver was inducted into the Harvard University Football Hall of Fame in 1978. In 2009 he received the Ivy League Football Association’s Distinguished Alumnus Award.
Senator Culver is the subject of a book by Elizabeth Drew entitled Senator about the role and responsibilities of a U.S. senator.
SENATOR CULVER AND SIMPSON COLLEGE
Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa has a proud tradition not only of academic excellence but also of instilling and promoting in students an ethic of service and engaged citizenship. It also has nourished and treasured its historic connection with the family of Henry C. Wallace, the subject of the award winning biography co-authored by Senator Culver.
In 2010 Simpson established the John C. Culver Public Policy Center to honor Senator Culver and to promote civic education, service, and political engagement.
John Culver’s life of service to country – in the military; in the U.S. Congress; as an author and teacher; as a participant in numerous institutions devoted to memorializing history, inspiring students, enabling the disabled to participate in artistic endeavors, furthering the cause of peace and nuclear disarmament – stands as an example and inspiration to Simpson students as they study and prepare for the future.