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Governor John Sydney Fine

Term: January 16, 1951 - January 18, 1955
Affiliation: Republican
Born: April 10, 1893
Died:  May 21, 1978

The son of a coal miner, John S. Fine rose to face postwar challenges as governor and the birth of “suburbia.” Fine was born in a mine “patch” home in the anthracite coal town of Alden, Newport Township, Luzerne County, on April 10, 1893. Fine was the son of Jacob W. Fine and Margaret Croop Fine. He learned about hard work at a young age as he labored on the coal company’s farm, plowing fields, milking cows, and doing other chores. While Fine was still young, the family moved into the nearby borough of Nanticoke where he attended Nanticoke High School and reported on local community news part time for a small newspaper.

After graduating from high school, Fine earned an LL.B. degree in law from Dickinson Law School in Carlisle, Cumberland County, in 1914. The following year he was admitted to the Luzerne County Bar, practicing law in Wilkes-Barre, near his hometown of Nanticoke, until the start of World War I. In May 1917, Fine enlisted in the 23rd U.S. Army Engineers, advancing to the rank of sergeant. In 1919, while stationed in Ireland, the future governor advanced his education with post-graduate work at the University of Dublin’s Trinity College. He was discharged from the military in August 1919 and returned to his law practice, eventually as a partner in the firm Coughlin and Fine.

His direction toward public service and politics was noted soon after law school when he became Republican district chairman, Fourth Luzerne District, serving 1916 to 1920, except during military duty. He became secretary of the Republican County Committee, 1920–1922 and Luzerne County Republican chairman, 1922–1923. In 1927, Fine began a twenty-three-year career as a court judge. Governor Gifford Pinchot appointed him to the bench of the Court of Common Pleas, Luzerne County, where he served from January 3, 1927, through a successful public election for a ten-year term that same year in November, and was re-elected for another ten years in November 1939. Soon after that election, on December 5, 1939, at the age of 46, Fine married Helene Pennebecker Morgan, and from this marriage were two children, John Sydney Jr. and Donald.

On July 15, 1947, he was elevated to the Pennsylvania Superior Court after being appointed by Governor James Duff to fill a vacancy left by retiring Judge Thomas Baldrige. In November 1947, Fine was successfully elected to a permanent term, serving until he began his campaign for governor on March 1, 1950. Fine was the choice of Governor Duff to succeed him as governor and together they campaigned, with Duff running for the U. S. Senate. A continuing feud between Duff and the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association forced Fine to contend with a bitter multi-million dollar primary among opposing Republican factions, but he was victorious in the primary. In the fall election of 1950. Fine faced the charismatic Democratic mayor of Philadelphia, Richardson Dilworth (1898–1974), a Yale cum laude graduate and a former marine with a Purple Heart award earned in World War I and a Silver Star in World War II. Dilworth’s running mate was Michael A. Musmanno (1897–1968), who eventually became a state Supreme Court justice. Duff managed a victory by a slim 86,000 vote margin, the narrowest margin for a Republican in twenty years. Fine’s favored lieutenant governor nominee, Lloyd H. Wood (1896–1964), defeated Musmanno by 126,000 votes.

Fine’s term would be a tough challenge and within three months personal tragedy struck. During the campaign in late October 1950, Fine’s wife Helene fell from a platform and began to suffer from severe headaches. A month after the inauguration, Mrs. Fine underwent surgery, but her condition became critical and she died on April 23 following more brain surgery at University Hospital in Philadelphia. Fine was only the second Pennsylvania governor to be widowed while in office, the other being Simon Snyder in 1810. The bitterness of the loss to his family was nearly matched by the bitterness of a divided legislature arguing over the governor’s tax proposals.

One of the problems of postwar Pennsylvania was a lingering recession and an unemployment rate that had doubled in just two years prior the Fine administration. Fine inherited requirements to meet interest payments, mandatory teacher salary increases, veterans’ bonuses, and other state government expenses combined to be about $120 million short of revenues. In addition, the postwar “baby boom” was just beginning. While the upper grades of public schools were not yet feeling the effect of the population boom, the lower grades were becoming strained to accommodate more pupils. School enrollments increased by about 38,000 students each year of Fine’s term. A new word, “suburbia,” was coined as areas and counties surrounding cities began to have population explosions, from 50 percent growth in suburban Harrisburg, for example, to 46 percent in Montgomery County, and 387 percent for the new community of Bristol, Bucks County. The urban areas, such as Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Lancaster grew by more than 18 percent.

School buildings were generally becoming run-down, classrooms understaffed and overcrowded, equipment outdated and worn out, and only half of the state’s teachers held college degrees. There were still more than 330 one-room schools and the average teacher’s salary was just $3,410 per year. The poor state of the Commonwealth’s schools was despite the fact that education expenditures had been tripled since 1940, but it was inadequate to meet the modern demands of educating the state’s growing population.

Fine believed that state government was in need of reorganization and the Pennsylvania Department of Health was one such agency updated to meet the health needs of local communities. Fine expanded mental health programs, highway programs, and a clean up of state waterways begun in previous administrations. The governor formed the Chesterman Committee to study government structure and to make recommendations. However, recommendations were not completed until after Fine left office. To pay for new or expanding programs, Fine proposed a one half percent income tax, but the General Assembly rejected the idea. The governor wanted to avoid increasing the tax burden on businesses, believing that it would cause more unemployment. In fact, he gave employers retroactive tax credits in connection with the Unemployment Compensation Reserve Fund. Fine instead turned to other revenue sources. Except for a limited six-month sales tax during the Pinchot administration, the state’s first permanent sales tax, amounting to one percent, was passed in 1953. A sales tax has increasingly remained a part of Pennsylvania’s budget ever since. Under the State Public School Building Authority, created in 1947, more than $430 million was borrowed and committed to 714 school building projects, the biggest school building boom in state history. In 1951, the legislature expanded the ability of local school districts to form their own taxing authorities.

Fine also signed laws in 1951 providing training in areas such as nursing for the unemployed, licensing for commercial homes for the elderly, rehabilitation programs for drug users, and safety regulations in the handling of liquid gases. Pennsylvania had been ranked near the bottom in public health by the American Public Health Association and Fine saw to improvements in health care. He approved a pay raise for legislators, congressional redistricting, allowing a truck weight limit increase from 15,000 to 60,000 pounds, and extending the Turnpike into his native Luzerne County.

Although Fine came down on the side of privacy when he vetoed the General Assembly's attempt to publish the names of welfare recipients, he considered himself a Cold War warrior and was a strong anti-Communist. Because of the fervor raised with the hunt for Communists in the United States during the era of Joseph McCarthy, whom Fine supported at the time, the Communist Party was outlawed. Fine required all state workers, including teachers in state supported colleges, to each sign a loyalty oath. In his farewell address, Fine expressed the fear of many Americans who firmly believed that a surprise Russian nuclear attack and war with the Soviet Union was a real possibility.

During the second half of his administration, Fine signed into law a uniform child adoption law, prison reform, and he established the Governor’s Commission on Race Relations, a cross-section of respected civic leaders to work with local communities to end discrimination. At the same time, he opened up the State Police to African Americans and ended segregation in the state divisions of the National Guard. Fine initiated the construction of the State Vocational Rehabilitation Center at Johnstown, of which the dedication would be left to the next governor, George Leader. Other rehabilitation centers around the state were established to retrain injured workers. The governor also sought revisions in the state constitution, but Pennsylvanians voted down the idea and would not be ready for such a change until 1968.

Fine was the first Pennsylvania governor to have his inauguration televised, but television would also prove to cut both ways. During the National Republican Convention in July 1952, Fine led the Pennsylvania delegation. Privately, Fine supported General Douglas McArthur for president, but a group within his own delegation favored Senator Robert Taft. Fine requested time from the chair of the convention to caucus his delegation before casting votes, which would normally be granted as a floor courtesy to a state delegation. The chair reportedly reneged on the request, which made Fine appear indecisive to television viewers. Further, Fine was snubbed by the convention leadership when he sought to cast Pennsylvania’s vote to put Dwight Eisenhower over the top as the party’s nominee. Again, the discourtesy made the governor appear foolish to viewers. This incident hurt Fine’s public image and overshadowed his accomplishments as governor.

Fine faced great challenges in a postwar economy, political enemies within his own party, negative headlines from the news media, and a booming population, but despite overwhelming opposition in some instances, his administration reached many noteworthy goals that he set. It was also during Fine’s term of office that Dr. Jonas Salk, who was working at the University of Pittsburgh, succeeded in finding a vaccine for polio, which had crippled thousands of Pennsylvanians, as well as people around the world. Philadelphia was reorganized under a new charter and the nation’s first commercial nuclear generating plant became operational in 1954 in Shippingport, Beaver County.

Following his term of office, Fine returned to the practice of law and lived on a farm in Loyalville, Luzerne County. He also partnered with his brother-in-law in coal stripping and construction. In 1957, he made an unsuccessful bid to return to the bench on the Common Pleas Court of Luzerne County.

John S. Fine died on May 21, 1978, and is buried in Oak Lawn Cemetery in Nanticoke, Luzerne County.