NEW YORK (CBSDC/AP) — Tenacity marked U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s journey from a childhood so poor his family couldn’t afford his bar mitzvah to his life as a multimillionaire businessman who served for decades in the Senate, relatives and dignitaries said Wednesday at his funeral at a New York City synagogue.
“He came out fighting, and he never stopped,” Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove told mourners, including Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, several former governors and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“… Frank would always be a man of the people and for the people, never forgetting his humble start,” Cosgrove said after he began the service with a Hebrew blessing while Lautenberg’s wife and children stood near the senator’s flag-draped casket.
Lautenberg, a liberal Democrat from New Jersey, died Monday after suffering complications from viral pneumonia. At 89, he was the oldest member of the Senate and the last of 115 World War II veterans to serve there.
Reflecting on such signature Lautenberg accomplishments as the laws that banned smoking on most U.S. flights and made 21 the drinking age in all 50 states, Cosgrove said it seems difficult now to imagine “that those matters which were undoubtedly fierce debates of their time, and for which Senator Lautenberg withstood withering criticism, now, in retrospect, appear as inevitable and obvious as they seem necessary.”
Not everyone was a fan of the increase in the drinking age, of course. Lautenberg’s daughter Lisa Lautenberg Birer, who lost her voice and had her speech read by her own daughter, joked that she lost 300 friends in college because “Dad raised the drinking age.”
She also noted that his toughness and persistence weren’t limited to Senate negotiations. Her father once fell 1,000 feet down a ski slope, sat up with a broken collarbone and refused to wait for the ski patrol, she said.
Lautenberg was “the living definition of what it means to be a successful man,” Biden said. He described the two of them first meeting in 1975, when Biden was a young senator and Lautenberg was a leader of the United Jewish Appeal. Biden later counted Lautenberg as one of his closest friends in the Senate.
Right until the end of his life, Lautenberg wanted to work, Biden said. The two discussed several times whether Lautenberg should run again for office next year before Lautenberg ultimately decided he would not.
“He desperately, desperately, wanted to run again,” Biden said. “And I think the reason is not because he wanted to be senator, but your dad never quit. He never quit anything. He never gave up. He never gave in. And for Frank Lautenberg to decide that he wasn’t going to run again was not only a decision about how he cared about his state; it was about his character.”
Biden elicited laughter from the hundreds in attendance joking how much easier it was to eulogize Lautenberg than former Sen. Strom Thurmond.
“… I knew Strom Thurmond so well, I did his eulogy. This is a lot easier,” Biden quipped.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey called Lautenberg the most tenacious man he’d ever met. Lautenberg’s story “was an American story, but in his heart and in his lifetime, he was a man from New Jersey, a kid from Paterson,” Menendez said.
Lautenberg was also steadfast in standing with families who keep children safe from toxic chemicals, smoking, drunk drivers and with gun violence victims, veterans seeking higher education and New Jerseyans trying to build businesses, Clinton said.
“He stood with the riders of Amtrak,” Clinton said, “and most of all, he stood, as we have seen so beautifully today, with his beloved family.”
A color guard ceremony was also scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at the Frank Lautenberg Rail Station in Secaucus, N.J., outside New York City. In Secaucus, his casket was to be put on an Amtrak train to Washington.
Lautenberg was an ardent defender of Amtrak and worked to secure hundreds of millions of dollars for mass transit projects.
His casket was set to arrive at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday and lie in repose in the Senate chamber, on the Lincoln Catafalque, a bier that was built for the coffin of Abraham Lincoln.
Lautenberg, who served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, will be buried Friday at Arlington National Cemetery.
A multimillionaire businessman, Lautenberg was first elected to the Senate in 1982 and went on to serve nearly 30 years there in two stints.
Lautenberg’s second daughter, Nan Morgart, said that during her father’s brief retirement from the Senate, “he was so bored” that he’d call her daily to ask how many products she’d sold at her job as a sales representative for IBM. “I not only had a quota from IBM but an arbitrary quota from my dad,” she said with a laugh.
Lautenberg won his last race in 2008 at age 84, becoming the first New Jersey politician ever elected to five Senate terms. He had announced earlier this year he would not seek another term in 2014.
Lautenberg’s eldest daughter, Ellen, said her father’s life story “shaped my path by demonstrating that there are always new opportunities to learn and grow.”
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