Congress’ longest-serving member, John D. Dingell, was known for his sense of humor. So much so, that when his former colleagues traveling to his funeral in Dearborn, Michigan, were diverted back to Washington due to bad weather, the priest presiding over the service suggested Dingell was at work.
Rev. Terrence Kerner said he wasn’t supposed to preach at Dingell’s service. Father Pat Conroy, the House chaplain, insisted he knew Dingell better and should do so. But he was on the plane with the congressional delegation that was diverted back to Washington.
It was about 10 minutes before the service that Kerner said he learned he would be preaching, with nothing prepared to say, and that former Vice President Joe Biden would be the sole eulogist.
“And I thought, gosh, John really does have a sense of humor; he’s got Biden and Kerner up here,” Kerner said.
The priest recalled talking to “Pat” — as Conroy repeatedly insisted he call him — in planning the funeral.
Rep. Debbie Dingell, John’s wife and successor in Congress, told Kerner that he should deliver the homily — the part of the Catholic mass in which the priest reflects on the gospel passage read and the occasion for the service. But Kerner said Conroy wanted to preach.
“He said, ‘I knew him better than you,’” Kerner said, recalling his phone conversation with the House chaplain.
“Father Pat, he’s stubborn. He was really a tough bird,” Kerner said. “Speaker Ryan tried to get rid of him, look what happened. He’s back. He’s got his job back.”
But Conroy did not make it to Dearborn, nor did Speaker Nancy Pelosi or the entire congressional delegation traveling with her. Their flight, on military aircraft, hit bad weather and had to turn back to Washington.
“So you’re stuck with John getting his way,” Kerner said. “John said, ‘I want what I want. I want Biden and Kerner up here.’ So Mr. Vice President, we’re in it together.”
‘Lighthearted ... meaningful and sincere’
Dingell died Thursday at 92. His funeral was held Tuesday at the Church of the Divine Child.
It featured a traditional Catholic mass with popular hymns and prayers. In honor of what would have been the Dingells’ 30th wedding anniversary — Wednesday, Feb. 13 — the choir at one point sang Ave Maria, which played during their wedding.
“He said he wanted a lighthearted, joyful, respectful, meaningful and sincere liturgy. This is what hopefully he’ll receive,” Kerner said.
The gospel passage read at the service was the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount that Jesus delivered to his disciples.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” part of the gospel according to Matthew reads.
Kerner brought his homily back to the Beatitudes by telling a story of an elderly woman who approached him at breakfast a few days ago after overhearing him planning Dingell’s funeral service.
“What a great man. He did so much for us,” Kerner recalled the woman saying.
When he asked if she had met Dingell, the woman said no. But she said she knew him well, noting, “My husband said were it not for John Dingell, I wouldn’t have had a job.”
In that connection, she “met” him a lot, but she never shook his hand, Kerner said. Dingell had that effect on people.
“The richest to the poorest, most influential, the weakest, those who needed someone to tell them like Jesus did through the Beatitudes, you’re worth something,” he said.
Biden during his eulogy likened Kerner’s story of the old woman to an anecdote Dingell would often tell about former President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s funeral, and the thousands of people who crowded the train tracks his body was transported on from Washington to upstate New York.
“John loved to tell a story about an African-American man standing alongside the track, tears streaming down his face,” Biden said. “And a neighbor asked this man, ‘Why are you crying? You didn’t know Roosevelt.’ And the man replied, ‘No, but he knew me.’”
‘I’m about to sin’
Biden’s tribute to Dingell was both sentimental and humorous. The former vice president opened his remarks by saying, “Bless me, father, for I’m about to sin.”
Biden recalled his first strike while recounting one of the few things he and Dingell had in common.
“He was so much better than I was at everything, but we agreed on one thing. Satchel Paige got it right about age,” Biden said, referring to the baseball legend’s being asked about his age after pitching a win against the Chicago Cubs on his 47th birthday.
Paige told the press questioning him about his performance that he views age as how old you would be if you didn’t know how old you were.
“I’m 42. John was 50. So I want to get it straight,” Biden, 76, joked. He halved their actual 16-year age difference, presenting their metaphorical ages.
“I told you I was going to sin,” he said.
Biden also made the sign of the cross to note a sinful remark as he commented on Dingell knowing when to conceal his jokes — something the gaffe-prone potential presidential contender does not do well.
“He knew the difference between a hot mic and a cold mic,” Biden said.
Biden said early on his eulogy that it was beyond his capacity to do Dingell justice and that it would be impossible to sum up the legendary congressmen even if he had five days to speak.
“I admired almost everyone I worked with, but a few that I looked up to, who I knew were better than I was at what they did,” said Biden, a former U.S. senator. “I knew they were more successful about what they set out to do than I was. And John Dingell was that man.”
‘His life, his work’
Dingell, a die-hard University of Michigan fan, sang the school’s fight song, “Hail to the Victors,” many times, Biden said.
“But his life, his work wasn’t about hailing the victors,” he said. “It was about focusing on those who suffered and offering him a hand.”
During his 59 years in Congress, Dingell often accomplished in two years what most lawmakers couldn’t accomplish their entire careers, Biden said.
“The list of John’s achievements is literally, not figuratively, like leading the list of America’s proudest moments in the last seven decades,” he said. “Look behind our page in history, there he is. John is holding the gavel when Medicare passes in the House. I remember John and I standing next to President Obama — John sitting next to him, I standing to his right — when we signed the Affordable Care Act.”
At the bill signing in 2010, Biden said Dingell looked up at him standing by the president and said, “Almost there.”
Biden did not point out that nine years later he is still considering whether to run for that higher office.
In concluding his remarks, Biden recalled the first House floor speech Dingell gave upon arriving at Congress at the age of 29. Fighting back tears as he talked about picking up the baton from his late father as the Detroit area representative, Dingell said he would feel successful if he could prove to be half the man his father was.
Dingell turned out even better, Biden said, before telling funeral-goers, “It’s our job now to pick up that baton.”
One last look at the Capitol
After the Dearborn services, the funeral procession came to Washington in preparation for services on Thursday and Dingell’s eventual interment at Arlington National Cemetery.
A few minutes past 4:30 p.m., an hour after initially scheduled, a motorcade with a hearse carrying Dingell’s casket drove by the East Plaza of the Capitol.
The hearse stopped in front of the House steps, where a few dozen lawmakers had gathered in the rain to pay their respects to the longest serving member of Congress. The members dropped their umbrellas out of respect as the hearse approached.
Debbie Dingell emerged from the black SUV parked behind the hearse and was greeted with hugs from her colleagues.
Freshman Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin was the first to approach her for a hug, followed by Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert. After a few minutes, Dingell hopped back in the SUV and the motorcade departed the Capitol.
As lawmakers walked back inside the Capitol building, Speaker Pelosi commented, “That was nice.”