Curtis W. Tarr, Innovative Leader of the Draft, Dies at 88
Charles W. Harrity/Associated Press
Published: June 29, 2013
Curtis W. Tarr, who as director of the Selective Service System in the later years of the Vietnam War sought to make the lottery system for the military draft fairer by reducing the number of student and medical deferments granted to young men, died on June 21 at his home in Walnut Creek, Calif. He was 88.
The cause was complications of pneumonia, his family said.
Mr. Tarr, who had been president of Lawrence University in Wisconsin, brought to the Selective Service what he called a “tremendous affection” for young people. From 1970 to 1972, he helped make the lottery more genuinely random in choosing potential draftees into the military, and he tried to enlarge the pool by granting fewer deferments to students, fathers, men in certain occupations and those claiming medical problems. A larger pool was fairer, he said.
In 1971, Congress eliminated college and other deferments, but the action had little effect because fewer troops were being sent to Vietnam by then.
Mr. Tarr succeeded Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, who had been Selective Service director from 1941 until February 1970. (An acting director, Dee Ingold, served until Mr. Tarr’s arrival in April.)
General Hershey had been a Washington institution, much like J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I. director. In 1967, General Hershey labeled draft resisters “shirkers” and “slackers” and sent a letter to local draft boards suggesting that a fit punishment for young antiwar demonstrators might be immediate induction into the military. The Supreme Court ruledthat draft classifications could not be manipulated for punitive purposes.
Mr. Tarr took a much more conciliatory approach. When antiwar protesters massed outside the draft system’s headquarters Washington in 1971, he invited four of them inside to chat.
“While I personally do not agree with all of their conclusions,” he said, “I believe that we share a common concern for the need to solve the serious problems that plague our country.”
Historically, draft boards selected potential draftees on the basis of seniority by age. But in 1969, a national lottery was introduced to determine, using birth dates, the order in which they would be chosen. (The lower the draft number someone received, the more likely it was that he would be drafted.) The first lottery was criticized for yielding clumps of dates; November and December dates in particular drew disproportionately lower numbers. Mr. Tarr enlisted scientists at the National Bureau of Standards to devise a more sophisticated approach for 1970.
When the Supreme Court ruled that it was acceptable to grant conscientious objector status to draftees for other than religious reasons — the traditional standard — Mr. Tarr developed more stringent requirements for that classification. He stressed that an applicant would have to prove that he was sincere in his pacifist beliefs and that he had held them before applying for conscientious objector status.
The draft ended in January 1973.
Curtis William Tarr was born on Sept. 18, 1924, in Stockton, Calif. He was a Boy Scout and an enthusiastic traveler, visiting all 48 of the continental United States by the time he was 25. He was drafted into the Army in World War II and earned three battle stars in Europe. He received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford and a master of business administration degree from Harvard.
Mr. Tarr worked for his family’s farm equipment company in Chico, Calif., for most of the 1950s. While doing this, he worked for a federal commission studying government organization and ran unsuccessfully for Congress.
He returned to Stanford as an instructor in business history and administrator. While there, he completed a doctorate, writing his thesis on the difficulties of unifying the armed services.
In 1963, he became president of Lawrence College in Appleton, Wis., and negotiated its merger with Milwaukee-Downer College for women to form Lawrence University.
Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird, who was from Wisconsin, brought Mr. Tarr to Washington in 1969 to be an assistant secretary of the Air Force. After several men, including two college football coaches, turned down the directorship of the Selective Service, Mr. Tarr accepted it, but only after turning it down once himself.
He went on to hold posts in the State Department before becoming a vice president of Deere & Company, the farm equipment manufacturer.
He served as dean of the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University from 1985 to 1989.
Mr. Tarr’s marriage to the former Elizabeth Meyers ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, the former Mary Katherine Laughlin; his daughters, Pamela Tarr and Cynthia Tarr; his sisters, Muriel Kurtz and Marian Schreiter; and a grandson.