The powerful and the average gather to say goodbye to Murtha
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JOHNSTOWN -- The leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives mourned John Murtha inside a church in his hometown and a Marine band marched his casket to the nearby cemetery on a day this mountain city buried its most powerful native son.
Mr. Murtha, a onetime car wash operator who rose politically to become one of the "cardinals" of Congress, wielding undisputed power and directing billions in federal dollars, was mourned by the powerful and the average people who gave them that power.
"Patriot, champion, hero, giant -- Jack Murtha. We will never see his like again," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who won the top spot in the House of Representatives with Mr. Murtha's backing.
Ordinary Johnstown residents grieved, too. Some stood outside the church, clutching small American flags, and remembering the man who served as this city's link to power.
"He was all of Johnstown," said Jim Smajda, who was part of the throng that waited outside the church to watch a Marine honor guard carry the burnished cherrywood casket to a waiting hearse.
From Salvatore Ferrau, who said Mr. Murtha helped him obtain a work permit when he arrived from Italy 40 years ago, to Andy Waligora, who said the congressman helped him process a college aid form after the death of his father, people here praised the King of the Earmarks who helped generate much of this city's industry.
Some worried it will all vanish with Mr. Murtha. Others were upbeat.
"I think the community will be OK because he set an example we all have an obligation to follow in some way," said resident William Coyle, among those lining the street outside the church.
The funeral was shown on television at four locations around the city. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts served as ushers and handed out programs.
Mourners at the Westmont Presbyterian Church here included more than 50 members of Congress, some of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former President Bill Clinton.
The service began with a procession of 14 members of the state's House delegation and Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. acting as honorary pallbearers. They had been planning a party in honor of Mr. Murtha as he approached the Feb. 6 anniversary that made him the longest-serving member of Congress in the history of Pennsylvania.
Instead, Mr. Murtha died Feb. 8 after complications from gallbladder surgery. He was 77.
Lauded in his district and often reviled by reform groups for his legendary practice of steering billions in defense dollars into projects in his economically depressed district, Mr. Murtha's funding prowess received mention after the first reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Father William George, a Jesuit priest and president of Georgetown Preparatory School, read the portion about how for everything there is a season and time.
"The writer of Ecclesiastes could also have written 'a time to make law and a time to change laws,' " Father George said, adding, wryly, "and, yes, a time to earmark."
A roll of laughter filled the sanctuary.
The packed church in the city's Westmont suburb was matched by crowds at two overflow sites -- the Pasquerilla Convention Center and the nearby Holiday Inn, where large screens were set up for those who could not get into the Westmont Presbyterian Church.
Donna Murtha, the congressman's daughter, an elementary school teacher in Virginia, broke down as she spoke of her father.
"I know him as Dad and as my buddy and my pal," she said. "He would talk to me every day. We did not talk about politics. We did not talk about economics. We talked about teaching."
She talked of her parents' 50-year marriage, of her father's love of gardening, of his sometimes comical battle to outwit the squirrels that came to dine at his bird feeder.
"He lived by the motto 'One Man Makes a Difference,' " Ms. Murtha said. "We love you, Dad."
Still another speaker, Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, spoke of Mr. Murtha's push, as a young father of three children, to be sent to Vietnam at the height of the conflict there.
"He felt strongly that it was his duty to serve. Joyce needed convincing, but ultimately she agreed," Gen. Conway said. He said the young Marine reservist went on to receive a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.
"He would believe for the rest of his life that sergeants understand the needs of the troops better than generals," Gen. Conway said.
At the time he volunteered for Vietnam, Mr. Murtha was manager of the Johnstown Minute Car Wash in the city's west end. Sent to save the business for his family, he turned it into a prosperous operation, advertising widely. After Vietnam, he came home to challenge the incumbent U.S. Rep. John P. Saylor in the 1968 election. He was trounced, but went on to serve several terms in the Pennsylvania General Assembly following a special election in 1969 to fill the unexpired seat of the late Edward McNally.
When Mr. Saylor died on an operating table during heart surgery, Democrats chose Mr. Murtha as their nominee in a special election that turned on fewer than 200 votes.
Appointed to the Appropriations Committee, he became a major power-broker, presiding over what was called "The Pennsylvania Corner" on the House floor, a spot that came to be known as "Murtha's Corner."
The dignitaries gathered in a town where Mr. Murtha's political reach touched almost every corner.
Ms. Pelosi flew with a delegation into the John P. Murtha Airport and traveled past defense plants the congressman brought into his hometown as chairman of the appropriations defense subcommittee.
Other members, such as Mike Doyle of Forest Hills and Mr. Casey, rode to the church on transit authority buses the late congressman provided the money to buy.
Before the service, many in the Pennsylvania delegation wondered what would happen now that its longest-serving member, capable of directing billions of dollars to his state and district, was gone.
"We've lost our 800-pound gorilla," said Mr. Doyle, a close ally of Mr. Murtha's.
"It's incalculable, the loss," added Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless.
Mr. Doyle organized an Irish wake last night in honor of Mr. Murtha, a fairly jolly affair where a few sipped Middleton Irish Whiskey, a bottle brought along by an old Murtha friend, lobbyist and former defense department budget liaison Dan Cunningham.
Colleagues swapped stories about the late congressman, his blunt-as-a-hammer style and startling grasp of detail.
One, Dennis Kucinich, D-Cleveland, remembered Mr. Murtha's decision five years ago to publicly oppose the Iraq war and call for U.S. withdrawal.
"We came to the conclusion that if Jack Murtha were to express any concerns he had, it would change all," Mr. Kucinich said. When Mr. Murtha, a longtime Democratic hawk, publicly declared the war unwinnable, it sparked a sometimes raucous House debate and energized political forces on both sides of the question.
Ms. Pelosi said she could recall Mr. Murtha being cheered in airports after he came out against the war, but she cautioned that he never confused the cause of ending war with a criticism of the troops fighting it.
"In his opposition, though, he taught us all to make a distinction between the war and the warrior," she said.
It was sometimes more complicated, though. At the time of his death, Mr. Murtha was the target of sometimes-bitter attacks for his public criticism of a squad of Marines accused -- and later cleared -- of criminal conduct in connection with the deaths of civilians in the Iraqi town of Haditha.
As the service concluded, it marked the starting point for jockeying for nominations to fill the congressman's unexpired term. Party insiders, including some in the House, have increasingly suggested that the Democratic nomination might be offered to Joyce Murtha, the congressman's widow.
Whoever succeeds him, they agreed, will be unlikely to carry the same capacity to steer earmarks to the district in the way Mr. Murtha did.
Former congressman Joseph Hoeffel, now a Montgomery County commissioner, addressed that point to reporters in remarks before entering the church.
Mr. Hoeffel said Mr. Murtha showed Johnstown how to "fight back" from floods and economic downturns and said it's now time for other people to carry on the fight.
"I'm sure there are many people who are willing to step forward."
Several of Mr. Murtha's constituents gathered in the snow across the street from the church. Some said they were concerned about the future of the area with the passing of Mr. Murtha, who had represented the district since 1974.
But one of them, John Yerger of Johnstown, said, "I don't think that this is the end of Johnstown or this community in any shape or form. People have underestimated this community before."
In addition to Mr. Clinton, CIA Director Leon Panetta, President Barack Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and other cabinet members were in attendance.
Cable television outlets PCN and C-SPAN covered the funeral live.
First Published February 17, 2010 12:00 am