NARBERTH, Pa. -- The hundreds of dark-clad mourners who gathered in a suburban temple Tuesday memorialized five-term Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter from his upbringing in the only Jewish family in a small Kansas town to a career that influenced decades of American public life.
Outside, a long line of cameras waited for glimpses of the politicians, Republicans and Democrats, paying respects to a man who had been a member of both parties. Vice President Joe Biden, who served across the aisle from his Republican colleague on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told mourners his staff had never doubted he would cancel a mid-October campaign trip to the toss-up states of Colorado and Nevada. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett sat at the front of the sanctuary.
Family and longtime friends spoke of the determination Specter applied both to meeting political obstacles and to facing cancer before his death Sunday, at 82, from complications of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
"I've never seen a man with as much undaunted courage as Arlen, both physical and political courage," Mr. Biden said. "He believed that he could change the world."
Shanin Specter, his son, said his father's most productive year was in 2005, when he was 75 and "bald as a billiard ball," as he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, oversaw the process of confirming two Supreme Court justices and played squash nearly every day.
Initially a Democrat, Specter became a Republican district attorney of Philadelphia and senator from Pennsylvania before switching parties in a bid to keep his seat after voting for President Barack Obama's stimulus bill. But an independent streak ran through all his years in office. Flora Becker, a longtime friend, suggested to mourners that it was Specter's youth as a minority in Kansas that inspired his tendency to seek a middle ground.
"From that he learned not everyone thinks the same," Ms. Becker said. "He became a moderate early on."
Stephen Harmelin, a Philadelphia attorney who served as treasurer on his campaigns, saw a geographic rootedness in Specter's work as a prosecutor in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
"He prosecuted both the mean and the mighty with a midwestern sense of indignation rising out of his Kansas upbringing," Mr. Harmelin said.
Specter transformed the district attorney's office from a bastion of political patronage, said former Gov. Ed Rendell, who worked under him. After Specter lost his final re-election bid for that office, he offered to help Mr. Rendell find work by connecting with an influential Republican. It was only then he learned Mr. Rendell was a Democrat.
"To this day, no one who followed Arlen, myself included, ever went back to making [the DA's office] political," Mr. Rendell said. "It remained fiercely independent and one of the great district attorney's offices in the country."
Moments of humor marked the service. Looking out over the rows of black dresses, black suits and black yarmulkes, Mr. Harmelin remarked that Specter would have been "looking at a crowd this size and wondering how we can turn this into a fundraiser."
But Mr. Harmelin also described Specter as a statesman unafraid to maintain his independence, from his work for the commission investigating the Kennedy assassination to the 2009 stimulus vote he later credited with forcing his departure from the Republican Party.
"Arlen will always make the tough calls, from the single-bullet theory to the stimulus," Mr. Harmelin said. "He paid a very high price for how often he went his own way."
Mr. Biden recalled the power of persuasion that Specter brought to his advocacy for Pennsylvania in the Senate.
"I don't know why the hell I've done so much for Philadelphia," Mr. Biden said. "God almighty. It's amazing how long I worked for Arlen. He'd say, Joe, remember, you're Pennsylvania's third senator. And like a sucker I bought it."
Mr. Rendell told the assembly that Specter had probably done more to serve Pennsylvania than anyone in the history of the commonwealth, with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin.
"There are kids in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and Harrisburg and Reading who are still in the school lunch program because Arlen Specter saved them," he said.
Shortly before he died, Specter had been teaching a course at the University of Pennsylvania on Congress and the Supreme Court, and Jan DuBois, a law school friend who became a federal judge, recalled that weeks ago Specter said he wanted to teach one more class. Earlier this month, he did.
"That is just another example of how he approached everything he did in life," Mr. DuBois said. "With intensity, determination and grit."
At the end, his coffin was borne from the sanctuary to the words of Frank Sinatra.
"And now, the end is here, and so I face the final curtain. My friend, I'll say it clear. I'll state my case, of which I'm certain. I've lived a life that's full. I traveled each and every highway. And more, much more than this, I did it my way."
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141. First Published October 17, 2012 4:15 AM