Former Pennsylvania Education Secretary Robert G. Scanlon, 76, of Warminster, died of heart failure Sunday at Abington Memorial Hospital.

In 1977, when Richard L. Thornburgh was mapping strategy for his gubernatorial campaign, a friend suggested he ask Dr. Scanlon to be his behind-the-scenes adviser on education. At the time, Dr. Scanlon was executive director of Research for Better Schools Inc. in Philadelphia, an educational research organization serving public schools in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.

With Dr. Scanlon's help, Thornburgh earned key endorsements from teachers' unions and other education groups. After becoming governor in 1979, Thornburgh, a Republican, appointed Dr. Scanlon, a Democrat, to head the Education Department.

Dr. Scanlon presided over the state's biggest and most expensive department, distributing funding to school districts and the state university system, which he oversaw. The department also helped districts develop curricula, guidance services, and other aspects of education.

Dr. Scanlon grew up with six siblings in Pittsburgh. He earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in education from Duquesne University and a doctorate in elementary education from the University of Pittsburgh.

He began his career as an elementary school teacher in Pittsburgh and held administrative positions in school districts in Leetonia, Ohio; Middletown, N.Y.; and Pittsburgh before joining Research for Better Schools in 1966.

The U.S. government contracted the agency to help implement court-mandated desegregation. In Alabama, Dr. Scanlon met with district administrators under guard from local law enforcement to calm fears and ensure the smooth integration of black and white school systems, his family said.

After leaving the Education Department in 1983, Dr. Scanlon was assistant to Temple University's president, Peter Liacouras, for several months. From 1984 to 1986 he headed Data Access, a computer equipment company in Blackwood. He then returned to Temple as vice president for planning and operations.

From 1989 to 1999 he was a vice president for Salick Health Care in Philadelphia. For several years until retiring in 2003, Dr. Scanlon was president of Archway Programs in Atco, a provider of services for physically and emotionally impaired children and adults.

Dr. Scanlon married his high school sweetheart, Charlotte Makar Scanlon, in 1954. The couple lived in Warwick Township for 27 years. In 1990 they moved to Lancaster, where they built their "dream house" on 33 acres, their daughter Christine Keith said.

Her father loved tending his apple and pear orchards, growing vegetables, and working the land, Keith said. Dr. Scanlon's wife died in 2000, and in July he moved to Warminster to be closer to family. He continued to garden, his daughter said, and his tomato plants were flourishing.

He also enjoyed opera and art and had taken up photography, Keith said.

Dr. Scanlon is also survived by sons Jim, Mark, and Kevin; daughters Karen Brehm and Robin Burke; four sisters; a brother; 11 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Friends may call from 6 to 8 p.m. tomorrow and from 8 to 9 a.m. Saturday at the Shelly Funeral Home, 1460 Easton Rd., Warrington. A Funeral Mass will be said at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at St. Cyril of Jerusalem Church, 1410 Almshouse Rd., Jamison. Burial will be in St. Joseph's Cemetery, Bausman, Lancaster County.

Memorial donations may be made to the American Heart Association for the Robert G. Scanlon Memorial Fund, 5455 N. High St., Columbus, Ohio 43214.

Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.