Dingell 'an amazing soul,' Biden says during funeral mass

Dearborn — Former U.S. Rep. John Dingell was "an amazing soul" whose accomplishments are difficult to reflect in a eulogy, former Vice President Joe Biden said at Tuesday's funeral mass.

Dingell was “a man who knew where he came from and public service wasn’t a title you wear but a shift that you work, like everybody else,” Biden said about the Dearborn Democrat, who died Thursday at age 92 as the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history.

Biden spoke at the Church of the Divine Child in Dearborn, where about 1,100 people filled pews. In the church were some current and former members of Michigan's congressional delegation, labor leaders, captains of commerce and regular citizens. The mass lasted one hour and 45 minutes after starting about 45 minutes late.

Constituents knew Dingell as an elected official who knew them and treated all with “dignity,” Biden said.

“I knew he knew me," the former vice president said. "He gave me confidence. He made me believe more in myself than I had. John had that special capacity to do so. When you were with him, you knew you were with greatness.

"...Dignity was how John walked. Dignity was how John talked. Dignity was how John carried himself. It was how John treated everyone and I mean everyone.”

Dingell showed during his 59-year career that everyone deserves an opportunity, "whether you’re the child of a congressman, the child of a brick layer or the child of a single mom living on assistance," Biden said.

The Delaware Democrat, who is considering running for president in 2020, acknowledged John Dingell's wife Debbie, who is now serving the same district her husband did.

“Losing John was like losing part of your soul,” Biden said, looking at Debbie Dingell. “He was your soul. But what an amazing soul he was.”

Biden reflected on Dingell’s health care and environmental legislation, efforts to advance civil rights and the signing of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, when Dingell was at the side of President Barack Obama and himself.

'Right side of history'

While Dingell chose "confrontation hesitantly," Biden said, he "could always be found standing firm on the right side of history, even when he knew he had to stand alone.”

Among the dignitaries in the crowd were United Auto Workers union President Gary Jones, Edsel and Cynthia Ford, and actress Lynda Carter of "Wonder Woman" fame. Former and current elected officials included Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing; ex-Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit; former Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak; as well as Reps. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, and Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield.

Also in attendance were Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, former Gov. James Blanchard, Attorney General Dana Nessel, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

Pallbearers at Tuesday’s service included former staffers of Dingell. 

Biden was among two speakers at the service.

Residents in Dingell's district may not have known him personally but felt they did and were thankful for his service, the Rev. Terrence Kerner said.

Dingell was about the “ordinary things,” said Kerner, pastor at Dearborn's St. Kateri Catholic Church, noting that the congressman and his staff would reach out and listen.

Dingell told his staff, the priest said, ‘Listen, even though they are not in my district any longer, take care of them. They are my people. Take care of them. They need me. They need you. Work together.”

“If not for John Dingell, I would not have been able to put food on the table. I wouldn’t have been able to put food on the table,” Kerner recounted of a woman he encountered at a restaurant who spoke of Dingell.

When Kerner went early Monday to pay his respects to Dingell during visitation, he said he saw a variety of people lining up, from those "dressed to the nines in mink coats and jewelry" to a man in uniform with “grease on his sleeves, work boots on.”

“I think the little guy, the common man, when he knew John Dingell probably felt that he was uncommon,” he told the crowd.

Debbie Dingell struggled to hold back tears as her husband's casket was being led out of the sanctuary. She was flanked by Biden's wife Jill and Joe Biden, who said near the end of his eulogy, "God bless you, old buddy."

'Someone to look up to'

Following the funeral, former Sen. Levin said Biden “hit the right note” in describing his friend as a person for the people.

Dingell also “stood for the ability to get things done in a bipartisan way," Levin said. "Fight like hell, but get things done.”

The funeral, originally set to begin at 11 a.m., was delayed to await the arrival of other members of Congress from out of town. But two U.S. House Democratic aides confirmed that military transport planes carrying members of Congress to Dingell's funeral turned around after not being able to land at Detroit Metro Airport because of the freezing rain and sleet.

The two planes carried about 60 members of Congress, members and aides said, including Republican U.S. Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph and Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, were originally scheduled to speak at the funeral mass.

U.S. House Chaplain Patrick Conroy was scheduled to deliver the homily during the Mass, but he was on the military planes that were forced to turn back for Washington, D.C. 

Pat Raven made the drive to Dearborn from Traverse City on Monday to attend Tuesday’s services for Dingell. She brought her 12-year-old grandson Xavier Raven.

“It’s a piece of history and I wanted to share it with him. He is 12. This is such an opportunity,” and “I love Joe Biden,” Raven said.

Sean Green also attended with his wife Chelsea and 11-year-old daughter Isabella.

The military veteran said John and Debbie Dingell have always been advocates for veterans and they would not miss the opportunity to attend his funeral.

“John gave me the best advice: If you take care of the people the people will take care of you,” Green said.

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Dingell was a “man who really embodied public service and all the best parts,” Stabenow said before the funeral.

“He was willing to listen to the people,” she said. “If you made an agreement, you keep it. In the end, he was always motivated by the people he served.”

Dingell transported to D.C.

After the mass in Dearborn, Dingell's casket was flown by military transport plane to Joint Base Andrews outside of Washington in Maryland. 

Former John Dingell Congressional aide and page Rafeef Samo, center-right, hugs family friend Siham Awada-Jaafar as Samo stands with other honorary pallbearers, who are all former Dingell staffers.

Debbie Dingell traveled on the plane with her family, aides said. 

The motorcade with a hearse bearing Dingell’s casket entered the U.S. Capitol complex from the north around 4:37 p.m. and proceeded slowly across the East Plaza, passing the Senate and coming to a stop in front of the House steps during a cold, misty rain.

Members of Congress stood on the House steps with hands over their hearts.

Debbie Dingellstepped out of the vehicle behind the hearse and was greeted by members of Congress, including members of the Michigan delegation. Among them were Stabenow, Upton and Reps. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton; Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland; Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township; Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit; Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, and Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly.

At least seven former Dingell staffers were part the crowd waiting under a canopy near the East Plaza for his motorcade.

Marda Robillard, Dingell’s longest-serving chief of staff, was among them. 

“I love the man. I wanted to come see my boss,” said Robillard, who worked from Dingell from 1993 to 2000.

“It’s the same thing they did for Ted Kennedy. It’s appropriate.” 

“I couldn’t make it to Detroit and needed to do something for him,” said Josh Tzuker, who was Dingell’s legislative director from 2002-07.

A second funeral Mass is planned for Thursday at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, where former President Bill Clinton, a hunting buddy of Dingell's, will speak.

But Tuesday's mass resonated with Sandie Knollenberg, the wife of the deceased Republican Oakland County Congressman Joe Knollenberg, who described it as “warm, loving, caring.”

Dingell’s service was very dignified and respectful,  Mary Bunge of Rochester said .

“When you think of him, you think of dignity. He was looking out for the people,” Bunge said.

“Wasn’t that a beautiful service?” Wayne County Commissioner Joe Palamara said after the funeral was concluded. “Joe Biden brought out the best in John Dingell: knowing what people are going through, that was key to John’s success.”

“He was simply one of the best. He gave us something to look up to."

Even one of Dingell's former opponents paid his respects.

Marty Kaltenbach, a Republican who in 2002 lost 72 percent to 26 percent to Dingell, admitted after the service that “I did not believe I could win.” 

“He truly was a giant,” said Kaltenbach, who lauded Dingell's defense of the auto industry in the 1970s that defied his own party. “I have a lot of respect for him. He was a good guy. We can disagree on things with how stuff gets done. He had a long history with a good outcome.”


Staff Writers Melissa Nann Burke and Neal Rubin contributed.