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Dearborn — They came tall and mighty, like U.S. Sen. Gary Peters. They came weak and weary, like Maris Kellogg, a retiree with a litany of health woes.

Waiting in line Monday, they talked about politics and the environment and the state of the U.S. auto industry.

And they came to say goodbye, goodbye to a man who didn’t care if you were a big shot or small, a man who championed all the things they chatted about, a man who served in Congress longer than anyone in history.

Goodbye, John Dingell Jr.

"He was there for everyone," said Bob Caldwell of the Veterans of Foreign Wars District 4. "You can't replace him. He's got a legacy that will go on forever."

Dingell, who retired from Congress four years ago, died Thursday at age 92 after a battle with cancer.

Thousands of mourners streamed into the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center all day long for the visitation services.

U.S. Rep. Deborah Dingell, the congressman's wife and successor, greeted every single one of them as she stood near her husband's flag-draped casket. They were bathed in light in the middle of a darkened, cavernous ballroom.

Sometimes tearfully, sometimes smiling sadly, the congresswoman received condolences and thanks for everything the congressman had done.

Mary Ellen Klein, 67, who lived in Dingell's district her entire life, said it was important to be there.

"I've suffered loss. We all have at some point in our life," she said. "It just means a lot if people come out."

The well-wishers, who packed the arts center lobby, ambled past dozens of floral displays with messages of love and support, including one from Martha Ford and the Detroit Lions.

A row of oversized printed photos, lining an entire wall, showed Dingell shaking hands with former President Bill Clinton, with the late George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, and former Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson.

The political princes and princesses of Michigan weren't just on canvas.

Among the mourners were former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and Ronna Romney McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee.

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, a close family friend and former congresswoman who served beside Dingell for a decade, said no one knew parliamentary rules better than him.

"He was a true warrior, whether he was protecting our magnificent Great Lakes or the auto industry, his beloved auto industry," she said.

Miller said her old friend loved working in the House, where he toiled for 59 years. He turned down chances to pursue other elective offices, describing himself as "a House guy."

Dingell, nicknamed "Big John" and "the Truck," helped write most of the nation's major environmental and energy laws. He was a champion of the auto industry and credited with increasing access to health care, among other accomplishments over his 59-year career.

Maris Kellogg had never met Dingell while he was alive. But she was compelled to meet him in death.

Kellogg, 64, of Detroit, said she respected the congressman because he had served such a long tenure as a public servant.

“He was doing it when I was a child,” she said. “That should stand for something.”

Many mourners described the congressman as a good friend, even if they had never met him. They considered him as such because of everything he had done for the working class.

Kevin Champion said there was a simple reason he came. He’s a working man and Dingell was the champion of the working man.

Champion, 40, wearing a hooded jacket and wool cap, said the congressman’s support of unions will benefit workers for decades to come.

“We stood up for him because he supported us,” he said.

Among the political leaders who paid their respects was Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel. In fact, he was one of the first people, pol or constituent, to arrive at the arts center.

"I tend to look at people not just what they do for a living but from behind the scenes," he said. "He was a true gentleman."

Such praise continued from morning to afternoon to evening.

Dearborn Mayor John O'Reilly Jr. worked for Dingell for four years in Washington. He said he never met anyone like him.

"He was totally focused on his objectives." said O'Reilly. "He had principles and he was willing to work with others and give concessions to get to his goals."

And Dingell was perfectly willing to work with the other side of the aisle, said the mayor. That's something that is sorely missing in Washington today, he said.

"Compromise is the key, and he was the master," said O'Reilly.

The visitation was the first of several public events spread over this week.

A funeral Mass will be held Tuesday at the Church of the Divine Child in Dearborn where former Vice President Joe Biden is among the three speakers.

A separate funeral Mass is planned for Thursday in Washington, D.C.,with speakers who will include former President Bill Clinton. He will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Dingell succeeded his father in Congress in 1955 and his wife was elected to his seat in 2014.

Patsy Collins, whose late husband was a union official, met Dingell during a union function in the 1990s.

She couldn’t believe that, seeing him at a social gathering two months later, the congressman remembered everything about their conversation.

“He actually listened to me. How many people do that?” she asked.

 

cferretti@detroitnews.com

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed. 

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