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Friends, family, remember nation’s first energy secretary in Springfield

James Schlesinger was a Harvard man but an Ohio State Buckeyes fan.

The former secretary of defense, CIA director and the nation’s first energy secretary who served three presidents was buried Saturday in Springfield next to the grave site of his wife, Rachel, at Ferncliff Cemetery. Schlesinger died March 27 at age 85 in a Baltimore hospital. A private funeral was held Saturday at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Springfield. Rachel Schlesinger died of cancer in 1995.

Leslie Goldman, a best friend for four decades, and a University of Michigan law school graduate recalled the vigorous rivalry the two men had when the maize and blue scrimmaged the scarlet and gray on the football field.

“It was a joke between us,” said Goldman, 69, of Chevy Chase, Md. “I hated the Buckeyes and he hated the Wolverines and we went at it for 36 years in a row — never missed a game. It was like a ceremonial religious thing every year. Come this November, I’m going to be pretty lonely.”

Schlesinger, a New York City native and Harvard University economics graduate, grew loyal to Ohio State because of his adopted hometown, Springfield, where the family has a nearby farm. It’s also where he married his wife, the former Rachel Mellinger in 1954.

Springfield always was a second home for the family and where Rachel’s family roots extend to a year before the Civil War, according to Emily Schlesinger, 52, a daughter and one of the couple’s eight children.

The family traveled to the Ohio farm at least once a year and often more with their father, she said.

“It’s his adopted home,” said Schlesinger, of Arlington, Va. “It was like coming home every time we came here.”

An Air Force ceremonial guard fired a volley of rifle salutes and played taps at the cemetery in honor of the former defense secretary under both Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald sFord. Schlesinger took the top post at the Pentagon in 1973 at the age of 44. President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, would appoint Schlesinger, a Republican, the first leader of the newly created Department of Energy in 1977. He had budget or policy differences with Ford and Carter and left both posts, according to historical accounts.

Schlesinger also served as a university professor and national security think tank strategist.

“He was a man for all seasons,” said Goldman, a Democrat who counted the Republican as a mentor as they helped create the energy department. “He was one of the most open-minded, intellectual, brilliant problem solvers I have ever met. He was one of a kind. … He mentored generations of people like myself to really care about government and he was just a great influence on everybody. I adored him. It’s a big loss. It’s a big loss for the country and a big loss for every one of us personally who knew him.”

Robert G. and Phyllis A. Kauffman, of Madison, Wis., knew the Schlesingers for decades since they wed in the 1950s and attended the funeral Saturday.

Robert Kauffman, 81, a retired University of Wisconsin professor, remembered the former White House cabinet member as “a very complicated, complex person. Brilliant mind, very definite about the way he went about his work and he was a patriot of America.”

“The thing I liked about Jim probably more than anything was he never wavered and he was criticized a lot for some of the things he did,” Kauffman said. “He never backed down.”

A memorial service is set for April 26 at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall and Arts Center at Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, Va.

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