Born in Providence, John Hubbard Chafee became one of the most successful governors of Rhode Island. Promoted to the rank of second marine lieutenant during the Second World War, he fought bravely in the battles of Guadalcanal and Okinawa. Following the war, he received his B.A. from Yale University and was awarded a law degree from Harvard two years later. In 1951, the Marines recalled him to active service to fight during the Korean conflict and his exploits as commander of a rifle company were recalled by James Brady in The Coldest War.
After the war, he returned to Rhode Island to open a law practice and later embarked on a successful political career, winning three terms as a Republican in the Rhode Island General Assembly. He then served as governor from 1963 to 1969, advocating the construction of RTE 95 and spearheading improvements in child and health care and campaign finance. He also supported abortion rights and gun control. During this time, he and his wife Virginia suffered the loss of their daughter Tribbie, who died after being thrown from her horse during a horse show in October 1968. She was fourteen years old.
Despite his loss, he continued to fight for reform legislation and ascended to the United States Senate in 1976, as the only Republican elected to the upper house from Rhode Island in nearly seventy years. While serving as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he fought for clean air and water legislation and protection of wetlands and barrier islands. In Rhode Island, he worked with the Colt estate to acquire 454-acre Colt State Park in 1965. A life-size statue in that waterfront park commemorates that achievement.
Senator Chafee was praised by his constituents and fellow legislators, Republican and Democrat alike, as “a genially independent New Englander … who worked to bring opposing sides together for a common goal.”
Senator Chafee, who planned to retire in 2000, was unexpectedly stricken with heart failure days after his 77th birthday. He was pronounced dead at Bethesda Naval Hospital on October 24, 1999. He left his wife, Virginia (nee Coates) Chafee, daughter Georgia Nassikas, four sons: John, Jr. of Los Angeles, Lincoln of Warwick, who was appointed governor by Lincoln Almond following the death of his father, Quentin of North Kingstown, and Zechariah of Providence, plus three sisters, and 12 grandchildren.