'Team Dingell': Staffers recall Dingell's loyalty, 'goodness' as boss
Former U.S. Rep. John Dingell will be remembered by history for his legislative achievements, but his staffers say they'll also recall his goodness, wisdom, and loyalty.
The longtime congressman, who died last week at 92, inspired a devotion, respect and affection from staffers, many of whom sought his advice about matters of policy, politics and life in general.
"It wasn’t just a job. It was a family," said Dennis Fitzgibbons, who worked for the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee that Dingell chaired for 16 years.
"He made you feel welcome and valued, and he genuinely cared about you."
For years, members of "Team Dingell" of all generations have gathered for reunions with and without their former boss to reminisce, tell stories and share their favorite "Dingell-isms" — small nuggets of wisdom or humor he would often repeat.
"When your boss demonstrates his loyalty not only to you as an individual member of his team but to his team as a whole, it creates a loyalty among the members of the team to each other that transcends generations," said Alan Roth, who worked for Dingell on Energy and Commerce from 1985-97 in roles including staff director and chief counsel.
"It’s just a really unique thing. It starts with the fact that you all feel like you’re part of an amazing team that he created. He made you feel like you were on a mission."
The day after Dingell's passing on Thursday, staffers from as far back as the 1970s, '80s and '90s gathered at a bar near Capitol Hill, while others got together in Dearborn. Former staffers are also serving as pallbearers at Dingell's funeral in Michigan on Tuesday, and planned to gather afterward.
"The alumni network is literally six decades of people who just learned so much from him and went on to do amazing things using all that he taught us," said Christopher Schuler, who worked as Dingell's communications director in his last term.
"At his core, there was just this profound goodness about him that was contagious. You’d be working on an issue and see the attention he’d give it, the thoughtfulness with which he’d approach it, and you couldn’t help but just do that, as well."
Fitzgibbons, now a consultant, worked under Dingell from 1988-2000 and returned 2006-09 as staff director of the Energy and Commerce Committee.
"He didn’t demand loyalty, he created it. And there were people who were not just willing but eager to work for him over long periods of time because the rewards were so great — both professionally, because he would get things done and that's the appeal of public service," Fitzgibbons said.
"But he would also recognize the contributions of the people around him."
He recalled how Dingell would amble back to the committee offices after a floor vote and stop by everyone's desk to ask, "What news? What to tell me?"
"It was his way of keeping tabs, but it was also a way of acknowledging people. He would greet everyone by first name, from the most recent staff assistant fresh out of college at the front desk, all the way through to the veteran counsels," Fitzgibbons said.
'Encyclopedia of history'
Dingell served in Congress longer than any other member in history, from 1955-2015.
On more than one occasion, Fitzgibbons left a meeting with Dingell and exchanged glances with another staffer, he said. Dingell had made another historical reference that they didn’t understand.
"We went immediately to call the Congressional Research Service to find out what that reference was. Now, of course, we could Google it, but there would be these historical references or to statute past years ago that we’d have to scurry and look up," he said.
"We didn't want to betray our ignorance in front of him."
Former chief of staff John Orlando said he'd remember the legislative battles he waged with Dingell but also "the other times that I just spent with him, with him teaching me about life."
Orlando, now executive vice president for government affairs at CBS, spent several hours with Dingell and his wife on Wednesday, the day before his death.
His 92-year-old friend was sharp until the end, Orlando said, recalling that they reminisced about history but also joked about his Twitter account and discussed the future. He left Dingell assuming he’d see him again.
“I’ll remember his stories and his view of the world. The man was an unbelievable encyclopedia of history," said Orlando, who worked under Dingell from 1985 to 1993 for his personal office and the Energy and Commerce Committee.
The congressman was respected by both Democratic and Republican aides, Orlando said, and the longevity of his own staff was a testament to his popularity. One staffer, the recently deceased Dave Finnegan, worked for Dingell for roughly three decades.
“He was very good with staffers. He would always tell us: ‘You get to the truth and get to the facts, I’ll worry about the politics,’” Orlando said.
Staff would make mistakes, but Dingell would never chastise them in public, Orlando noted. The congressman “respected the hell out of his staff” and therefore was able to attract the “best and the brightest," he said. But Dingell's own legislative knowledge was unrivaled.
“He’d say, ‘Did you take care of this and this and this, because in 1972 we forgot to take care of that, and we got messed up on that amendment,’” Orlando recounted.
“Or staff would come in and brief him on a certain section of the statute and he’d say, ‘Yeah, I know. I helped write that 20 years ago.’”
Dingell took the job that he was doing for his constituents seriously, Schuler said.
"It was everything to him, and making sure he was doing was right by them was his job, 24 hours a day. It was just contagious," he said.
Schuler served as Dingell's unofficial press person after he retired, helping him with press requests and advising him on social media. They kept in touch regularly and would text or speak by phone four to five times a week.
"We’d talk about the Tigers or U of M. I’m a big baseball fan, and I’d ask him to tell me old stories about seeing guys like Schoolboy Rowe or Hank Greenberg play," Schuler said.
"At times I wasn’t able to take every call, and I now have a trove of Google voicemail messages from him just discussing the news of the day, asking how things are, telling me how much he loved me and appreciated my friendship, telling me old stories."
Schuler lost his father at a young age, and neither of his grandfathers was alive when he was born, he said.
"Just having that presence of a person who knows more than you, who’s seen more and experienced more … and then wants to share all of those things with you and teach you every step of the way was powerful for me," Schuler said.
"I've been immensely lucky to have him as my friend."