Milton J. Shapp was a pioneer in cable television and Pennsylvania's first governor elected under the state Constitution of 1968. Two influences, good business sense and concern for the welfare of all people, came to Shapp early in life. Born as Milton Jerrold Shapiro, his father, Aaron Shapiro, was a hardware wholesaler in Cleveland, where Shapp was born on June 25, 1912. His mother, the former Eva Smelsey, was a leader in that city’s women’s rights movement. Shapp's maverick approach to politics may have been influenced by the fact that his father was a Republican and his mother a Democrat. His fascination with ham radios led to his decision to pursue related studies. During the depths of the Great Depression, Shapp graduated from Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland, Ohio, with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1933. His first job was driving a coal truck. The future governor later changed his name from Shapiro to Shapp because of concerns about prejudice against persons of the Jewish faith.
Shapp landed a job as a sales representative for a radio parts manufacturer and eventually started his own independent sales business representing several electronic parts companies. In 1936, Shapp moved to Philadelphia to change his sales area from the Midwest market to the east coast market and continued to add lines of electronic products to his catalog.
In 1946, after an honorable discharge as a captain in the Army Signal Corps, having served in North Africa, Italy and Austria, he founded Jerrold Electronics Corporation with $500 and two employees. Jerrod pioneered in the development of the cable television industry (CATV) which brought television to mountain-locked communities across the nation. With the technical help of Don Kirk, Ken Simons, and Hank Arbiter on a consulting basis, and initially developed a television signal booster for home use. Specifically, a small electronic black box, designed by Kirk, a young graduate student, and tested by Simons, showed Shapp how television reception using a community antenna and wired cable, could be enhanced, revolutionizing television broadcasting and reception. During the 1950s and 1960s, Jerrold was the dominant company in the TV cable industry. Jerrold Electronics helped make Shapp a multi-millionaire and in 1966, when he sold the business, the company had annual sales of $50 million and employed 2,100 people.
In 1954, the Philadelphia Bulletin referred to Jerrold as “a little United Nations,” because of its record for hiring and promoting African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and members of other minority groups. Shapp also was one of the first manufacturers to promote women to top management positions. In recognition of these accomplishments, the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO named Milton Shapp “Man of the Year” in 1963—the first time a business executive was chosen for the honor.
Shapp’s visionary ability as an entrepreneur and interest in public service attracted political supporters. Even though he was deeply involved in Jerrold Electronics, Shapp found time for public life. It is possible that if he had not sold Jerrold Electronics, Shapp would have become a billionaire. His dream, however, was to pursue elected office. He was an early supporter of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and a memo from Shapp to Robert F. Kennedy gave impetus to the creation of the Peace Corps. After Kennedy was elected president, Shapp served as an adviser to the Peace Corps as well as a consultant to Secretary of Commerce Luther Hodges in organizing the Area Redevelopment Administration to combat unemployment in the nation’s lesser developed regions.
In 1966, Shapp entered the primary race for governor. Shapp’s personal wealth and growing influence in business and government circles provided the resources to campaign independently for governor. Shapp refused to lock step with Democratic bosses and the Democrats instead endorsed Robert P. Casey. Capitalizing on the public’s suspicion of machine politics and using strategies from the campaign that initially brought John F. Kennedy into office, Shapp ran his campaign on a theme of “man against the machine.” He bypassed the Democratic political machine and trampled the endorsed candidate in the primary, which left many Democratic workers unhappy that their party preferred candidate had lost. On November 4, just before the election, at a rally in Pittsburgh, former Governor David Lawrence pleaded for party unity. Although a consummate politician and traditional political boss, Lawrence was also pragmatic and put party unity first. Ironically, the former governor and mayor of Pittsburgh collapsed at the podium and died seventeen days later on November 21, 1966, without learning that Republican Raymond P. Shafer defeated Shapp in the fall election by just under 242,000 votes.
Because Shafer was the last governor in Pennsylvania’s history prohibited from serving two terms in a row and because Shafer’s tax proposals were unpopular with voters, this presented an excellent opportunity for the Democrats. Six Democrats weighed into the primary, including Robert P. Casey. Again, Shapp ran an effective campaign, defeating Casey by about 730,000 to 481,000 votes, with the other four Democratic primary candidates running far behind. Shapp, with state Senator Ernest P. Kline as his running mate, defeated Republican Raymond J. Broderick for governor by just over 500,000 votes, and with Kline defeating Ralph Scalera for lieutenant governor, the 1970 general election was considered then to be a landslide. As the first governor elected under the state Constitution of 1968, Shapp was the first governor allowed to serve two successive terms in office. He was also the first governor of the Jewish faith.
He spent the first years of his administration instituting a program of modern management and restoring fiscal stability to a state on the brink of bankruptcy. Shapp also won national attention for his consumer advocate policies, innovative programs for the elderly, and handicapped, and sweeping welfare reforms. Shapp, who was a successful businessman before entering politics, established a reputation as a tough but fair negotiator when he brought together all sides to end a national strike by independent truckers in February 1974. A month later he helped avert a shut down of the nation’s gas service stations, and defused a second truckers’ strike in May 1974.
His businesslike approach to government, strong sensitivity to the plight of the disadvantaged and the “little guy,” and overriding conviction that government must serve as an advocate of all the people made Shapp a popular governor. In the primary election of 1974, two Democrats tried to challenge Shapp—Harvey F. Johnston, who had more than 106,000 votes, and Philadelphia state Representative Martin P. Mullen, whose extreme conservative views proved unpopular with voters statewide, had fewer than 200,000 votes. They were no match for Shapp’s 729,201 votes. On November 5, 1974, Shapp became Pennsylvania’s first constitutional governor to be elected two terms in a row by an overwhelming 300,000-vote margin over the Republican candidate Drew Lewis.
Shapp also pioneered other measures while governor. Integrity in government was an important goal for his administration, as well as making state government more responsive to citizens. Full financial disclosure legislation for top officials was passed, the most comprehensive “Sunshine Law” in the nation, a strict code of ethics for all state employees, and a rigorous campaign code of conduct. The Pennsylvania State Lottery was signed into law in 1971. Proceeds were initially targeted to provide property tax relief for the elderly in the Commonwealth. The state Department of Aging was also established during the Shapp administration. The Pennsylvania Industrial Development Authority was given new impetus to stimulate business development. In six years, 454 projects were undertaken with the assistance of $214 million in loans. Shapp also did away with state designations labeling children out of wedlock as “illegitimate,” signed into law divorce reforms, prison reforms, improvements to Pennsylvania’s portion of the Appalachian Trail, and $300 million in business tax breaks to small and medium-sized businesses. In 1971, Shapp also appointed Herbert Denenberg as state insurance commissioner who proved to be very popular with the public. With Shapp’s blessing and direction to make insurance companies more consumer friendly, Denenberg took on the industry with zealous effort. He had a dramatic affect on lowering premium rates, requiring insurance contracts to be written in easy to understand English, and other regulatory requirements that brought howls of protest from insurance underwriters. However, the powerful industry put increasing pressure on the governor and the legislature to let up and Denenberg was fired in 1974.
In another populist move, during his term, Governor Shapp was traveling by vehicle on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, a state controlled road that was established as a model toll highway when originally constructed. His entourage stopped at a rest stop, at which time all turnpike rest stops where limited to a commercial monopoly on food and fuel services provided to the traveling public. Shapp was angered by relatively expensive prices for low quality food in the only restaurant service available and made an issue out of the fact that citizens were forced to use pay toilets. Shapp made it a priority to offer improved and varied competitive services on the turnpike and did away with pay toilets, which proved a popular move with those using the toll road.
Shapp also had to deal with one of Pennsylvania’s worse weather disasters in state history. Powerful Hurricane Agnes struck the United States killing 117 people, including 48 deaths in Pennsylvania, and $2.1 billion in damage in twelve states, the costliest in U. S. history at that time. Although it was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it affected Pennsylvania, the storm combined with another weather system to stall over the state and dump rain non-stop for several days in a row. One of the worst areas affected was the state capital and the Susquehanna River. Front Street, the closest street parallel to the river in Harrisburg, which has a flood level of about seventeen feet, was deluged with flood waters of more than twice that level. Entire homes were lifted from foundations upstream and smashed against the bridges that spanned the river not far from the governor’s mansion. The governor’s mansion along Front Street was not immune to the water that surrounded local neighborhoods and the entire first floor was inundated. The mansion was not destroyed, although much mud had to be removed later from inside the building and the governor and his wife had to be rescued by boat. For the next several days, the governor oversaw the state’s rescue and emergency efforts and gave attention to the details of cleanup and relief for months afterwards. President Richard Nixon declared Pennsylvania a disaster area.
Shapp’s wife, the former Muriel Matzkin, shared the governor’s intense concern for disadvantaged people. She was a certified marriage counselor and part-time instructor at two Harrisburg hospitals. Shortly after the governor’s inauguration in 1971, she converted several rooms of the governor’s residence into an education facility for brain-damaged children and a Late Start program for senior citizens. Governor and Mrs. Shapp raised three children, Dolores (Graham), Richard, and Joanne.
Shapp was also a candidate for president in a campaign that lasted eighty-nine days. On February 29, 1976, Shapp was given eligibility to receive primary federal matching funds for a campaign organization to seek the Democratic presidential nomination. Shapp finished fourth out of five candidates in Pennsylvania’s primary and did not do well in primaries in Florida and Massachusetts. Shapp’s political popularity was apparently limited to being governor of Pennsylvania, and he dropped out of the race. Shapp said that his late start and what he described as "putrid" news coverage was responsible for doing poorly among numerous presidential candidates. On May 12 of the following year, the Federal Election Commission ruled that Shapp was ineligible for federal matching funds and was ordered to repay the federal government.
Milton J. Shapp died on November 24, 1994, and his body was cremated in a private arrangement. A $20,000 memorial engineering scholarship, the Milton Jerrod Shapp Memorial Scholarship Fund, in Shapp’s honor was established in 1996 by Motorola Corporation, the company that bought out General Instrument and the electronics legacy of the governor’s former company, Jerrold Electronics.