Swarthmore College mourns the passing of James Hormel ’55, H’09, a pioneering public servant, fierce advocate for human rights and social justice, and generous and dedicated philanthropist. A longtime member of the College’s Board of Managers, Hormel died peacefully Friday, Aug. 13, in San Francisco. Hormel was the first openly LGBTQ person to represent the United States as an ambassador. A dedicated supporter of the College, Hormel established a faculty chair in social justice and, along with his husband, Michael P. N. Araque Hormel ’08, provided a $4.3 million gift to establish the James Hormel and Michael Nguyen Intercultural Center, which opened in 2018 and has deepened the College’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity and to educating the whole person.
Upon receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree from the College in 2009, Hormel encouraged the assembled graduates to “always remember that nothing in life appreciates in value quite like your Swarthmore education.” In his address, he also urged: “The strongest advice I can offer anyone is to come out, and I don’t mean from the closet, although for some of you perhaps it is what I mean. More broadly, I urge you to follow your dreams and desires, instead of following the crowd.”
Below is an obituary for Hormel provided by his family.
James Catherwood Hormel, a fervent philanthropist and the first openly LGBTQ person to represent the United States as an ambassador, passed away peacefully in San Francisco on Friday morning, with his husband at his side and his favorite Beethoven concerto playing. He was 88.
"I want a party,” he said to his grandchildren from his hospital bed just days before his passing.
Walking through the ICU, it was obvious to all which room was his. Laughter and music spilled out as family members piled in to say their goodbyes. Wherever James was, the party followed.
Driven by his pursuit of equality, James devoted his life to the advocacy of fundamental human rights, social justice, and public service. With the exception of his severe acrophobia – he once crawled his way across an exceptionally steep section of a hike – James was fearless. He came out as gay in 1967, when it was not only uncommon to be openly gay, but still incredibly dangerous.
In 1997, James faced discrimination publicly when President Bill Clinton nominated him for U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. In addition to defamatory press coverage, numerous Republican senators blocked the confirmation process outright. Undeterred, James met this obstacle with determination and grace and spoke with each senator one-on-one, challenging their staunch opposition. In May 1999, Clinton employed a recess appointment, and one month later, James was sworn in.
From June 1999 to December 2000, James served as the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg, making him the first openly gay ambassador in the history of the United States. The magnitude of this appointment was extraordinary. Through his ambassadorship, James showed the country – and the world – that American diplomatic roles would be determined by demonstrated leadership and merit, not by how or who you loved.
One for a good party from his very start, James was born shortly after midnight on New Year’s Day in 1933. He was the youngest son of Germaine Dubois and Jay Hormel and grandson of George A. Hormel, the founder of Hormel Foods. His childhood was unconventional, growing up in the small community of Austin, Minnesota, where much of the town’s population worked for the Hormel meat packing plant run by his father. As a child, he discovered his gift for music and would often play and sing alongside his two older brothers, Thomas and Geordie.
In 1952, James attended Swarthmore College, where he received a B.A. in History, and met Alice McElroy Parker, his college sweetheart.
Alice and James had five children together and remained close friends even after their divorce in 1965. During James’ nomination process for his ambassadorship, Alice would share, “Jim Hormel has given enormously to his family, his community and to this country. He is just asking to be allowed to give one more time. This is a good man.”
Ultimately, James became a member of the Board of Managers at Swarthmore, and established a faculty chair in social justice. Swarthmore remains a special place to James, as it is where he met his husband, the love of his life, Michael. James was serving on the Board of Managers, and Michael was a member of the Class of 2008. One of their longest running jokes has been, “We met when [Michael] was a sophomore and [James] was a senior.”
Following his undergraduate time at Swarthmore, James received his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School, where he subsequently was Dean of Admissions and Dean of Students. He also went on to establish the James C. Hormel Public Service program at the law school to encourage students to pursue careers in public service. James holds three Honorary Doctorates: one from Swarthmore College, one from Hamline University in Minnesota, and one from the California Institute of Integral Studies.
Beyond James’ role as an ambassador for the U.S., he served in a variety of other public service capacities. He was alternate representative of the U.S. delegation to the 51st United Nations General Assembly in 1996. He was also a member of the U.S. delegation to the 51st U.N. Human Rights Commission, which met in Geneva in early 1995. In 1995, and again in 1997, James served on the Western States Regional Selection Panel for the President's Commission on White House Fellowships.
James’ generosity and philanthropic efforts built upon and extended past his time in foreign service. For more than 30 years, James was instrumental in developing resources for organizations serving people affected by HIV and AIDS, substance abuse, and breast cancer. He served as a member of the board of directors of the American Foundation for AIDS Research and the Human Rights Campaign Foundation, the latter of which he was a co-founder. He was also a founding director of the City Club of San Francisco, which was created to bring together community leaders of diverse backgrounds.
A businessman, James served as the Chairman of Equidex, Inc., a San Francisco-based firm that manages his and his family’s investments and philanthropic activities. Marcus Guerrero recalled that when he first started working at Equidex, James referred to him as “dear,” a term he often used when speaking to family and loved ones. James saw everyone at his office as just that – family.
James received a number of accolades over the course of his life, including the Silver Spur Award for Civic Leadership from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association and the Tiffany Award in recognition of his philanthropic achievement. He was named Outstanding Philanthropist by the National Society of Fundraising Executives, and the Human Rights Campaign honored him with the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.
James was a skilled improviser in both music and public speaking. Some of his greatest speeches were given without a single forethought or note, and he delivered each one with eloquence, humor, and purpose. When he spoke, everyone listened, and when he laughed (he was known for his hearty, infectious laugh), everyone laughed with him. James had a naturaL talent for music. He especially loved jazz, ragtime, and classical, and his knowledge of music was immense. If there was an instrument nearby, he was playing it and encouraging those around him to join in. His singing voice was playful, warm, and quietly commanding.
James had a dry, witty sense of humor and was quick on his feet. He was always the first to laugh at a seemingly innocuous joke – he’d frequently laugh so hard that he’d have tears streaming down his face. His children, Alison and Jimmy, recall him falling to the floor in a fit of laughter during a showing of the 1984 film, Top Secret.
James’ compassion also extended to his love of animals. He was never without at least a few pets in his life. A large, hand-painted bathroom mural memorialized each of his deceased cats, which sometimes disturbed unsuspecting houseguests who wandered in during a party. His children often jokingly wondered if he loved them as much as he loved his cats. In the last year of his life, he enjoyed quiet mornings with coffee and the newspaper, light walks through downtown San Francisco, and watching early 20th century films from bed with Michael, their dog Peanut, and cat Trouble.
When asked to share his “greatest regret” during a 2012 interview, James shared, “You can’t have them.”
James is survived by his five children (Alison, Anne, Elizabeth, Jimmy, and Sarah), fourteen grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and his husband, Michael P. N. Araque Hormel. His life was vibrant and grand, and his legacy will live on through the countless lives he changed.