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Corning CEO turned congressman turned bishop’s intern, Amory Houghton Jr. dies at 93

Bishop Thomas Shaw and Mr. Houghton, then a US congressman, at the Capitol.
Bishop Thomas Shaw and Mr. Houghton, then a US congressman, at the Capitol.The Boston Globe

Amory Houghton Jr. made a habit of welcoming new challenges at ages when many people think their life’s most significant work is in the past. Elected to Congress at 60, he served for 18 years and for a while counted among his interns one with an unusual resume: the Right Rev. M. Thomas Shaw, the Episcopal bishop in Massachusetts.

Then when Mr. Houghton decided not to seek a 10th congressional term, he switched roles with Shaw and, at 78, became the bishop’s intern in Boston.

“My family was very devout, and I was thinking of going into the ministry myself,” he told the Globe in 2005. “And it just seemed to me that rather than going down to Florida and playing golf and bridge and things like that all the time, I would try to do something which is reasonably worthwhile.”

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A descendant of the founder of Corning Glass Works, Mr. Houghton had led his family’s company as chairman and chief executive before stepping down and running for Congress. He was 93 when he died Wednesday in his Corning, N.Y., home, and formerly had lived in Cohasset.

Though born into privilege and wealth, Mr. Houghton was unpretentious. A 1975 New York Times profile noted that while serving as Corning’s chairman, he drove an 11-year-old Volkswagen.

Working as Shaw’s intern in a narrow, windowless room next to the bishop’s office was a far cry from Capitol Hill finery — let alone the boardroom and perks that accompanied being chief executive of one of the largest glass makers in the world.

As had been the case with his previous ventures, Mr. Houghton said he was most interested in using his background and talents to help out.

“I can’t come in with any golden wand, but I do have a little bit of experience in business and in politics, and I’ve had an association with the church,” he said of his internship. “So I think I can blend some of those things together.”

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In a sense, he had spent most of his life blending together commitment, responsibility, and duty.

Mr. Houghton had graduated early from prep school during World War II and immediately joined the Marines. As the oldest son among his siblings, he later went into the family business, thought at points he had considered the ministry.

Throughout his life, he was optimistic and kind — “two of the overriding things that we loved about him,” said his son Mory of South Salem, N.Y., the oldest of Mr. Houghton’s four children. “He was such a kind and decent man, and it’s an example we strive to live up to.”

In Congress, as with leading Corning, Mr. Houghton didn’t take a hands-off approach.

“It was astounding how much work that he did,” his son said. “Everybody thinks a politician just gets up on the floor of Congress and barks out a few things to get TV time. He worked like a dog. He wrote letters all the time, and he called people all the time. He pored through his briefing papers relentlessly.”

A moderate Republican at a time when Congress became less hospitable to centrists, Mr. Houghton founded and chaired the Republican Main Street Partnership, which calls itself a coalition of lawmakers who “believe in governing in a thoughtful and pragmatic manner.”

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Sarah Chamberlain, the organization’s president and chief executive, said in a statement that Mr. Houghton was “a resolute beacon of bipartisanship.”

“Amo knew that American progress can only be made when we shift politics back to the civility of the center,” she added.

Mr. Houghton parted with more conservative GOP colleagues on several issues. He supported abortion rights, for example, and though faith was a key part of his life, he opposed efforts to allow organized prayer in school.

He was among the few Republicans who voted against impeaching President Bill Clinton, and he also voted against a resolution that authorized President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq.

In 1998, Mr. Houghton sponsored a bill — passed by the US House and Senate, and signed by Clinton — to present the Congressional Gold Medal to Nelson Mandela, the president of South Africa.

“I’ve had a wonderful experience here — a great follow-up to the extraordinary life in the glass business,” he wrote in 2005, for the 55th anniversary report of his Harvard class, about his time in Congress.

The second of five siblings, Amory Houghton Jr. was born in Corning, N.Y., on Aug. 7, 1926. His father, Amory Houghton Sr., had led the family’s business and served as ambassador to France during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration. His mother, Laura Richardson, chaired the Girl Scouts nationally and was a philanthropist.

The name Amory appeared regularly over the generations. What became Corning Glass Works (now Corning Inc.) had its origins in 1851 in a company created in Somerville by Mr. Houghton’s great-great-grandfather Amory Houghton that eventually took the Corning name upon relocating to Corning, N.Y.

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Mr. Houghton went by Amo; his first son, Amory III, shortened his name to Mory.

Before attending Harvard College, Mr. Houghton graduated from St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., and immediately enlisted in the Marine Corps with a few friends. A private first class, he served during the final year of World War II.

After graduating from Harvard in 1950 and Harvard Business School in 1952, he went to work at Corning, where he became president in 1961 and chairman and chief executive in 1964.

In 1950, he married Ruth Frances West, and they had four children. Their marriage ended in divorce.

Mr. Houghton married Priscilla Dewey in 1989. She was a widow and a Democrat — and a playwright and lyricist as well, directing the Charles River Creative Arts Program in Dover.

When she died in 2012, in their Cohasset home, he said in a Globe interview for her obituary that she had “a sort of inner radiance which permeated everything. She was just endowed with a wonderful, joyous spirit.”

Mr. Houghton was a member of many boards, including those for major corporations, and had served as a Harvard University overseer. His younger brother James R. Houghton of Boston, who is known as Jamie, formerly was a member of the Harvard Corporation, one of the university’s governing boards.

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In addition to his son Mory and brother, Jaime, Mr. Houghton leaves two daughters, Sarah of Fairfield, Conn., and Quincy of New York City; another son, Robert of Acton; nine grandchildren; and a great-grandson.

A service is being planned for May in Corning, N.Y.

With his friend US Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat and civil rights leader, Mr. Houghton had cochaired the nonprofit Faith & Politics Institute, which named an award after them to honor those “who have exhibited qualities of conscience, courage and compassion in their roles as public servants.”

When Mory was going through his father’s belongings in the Cohasset home, he came across a leather-bound notebook in which Mr. Houghton had written periodically.

Among the jottings, Mory said, “were prayers that he loved, that he wrote down to remind himself that he was a servant, really — that he was a servant of God’s grace, and that he had an obligation to be faithful and to be true and to be honorable, and to strive to make the world a better place.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.