TEN DAYS ago, Barbara Boggs Sigmund, mayor of Princeton, N.J., died of cancer at the age of 51. If politicians can be divided into mutts and purebreds, Barbara had "papers." She was the daughter of the late House majority leader, Hale Boggs, and Rep. Lindy Boggs, and her family's political roots extend far beyond her own parents into the soil of Louisiana.
But while her sister, Cokie Roberts, is a political reporter with National Public Radio and ABC News on Capitol Hill and her brother, Tommy, is a Washington lawyer-lobbyist who works the same turf, Barbara was the only one of the Boggs children to enter politics directly. There were those of us who thought that, given her background and gifts, she should have risen higher than she did.
This thought did not stem from some droit de roi conviction that to whom much has been given, more should be supplied. From her childhood, Barbara exhibited a quicksilver mind, a compassionate heart and a tolerant spirit that probably came from growing up knee-deep in eccentric New Orleans relatives who bounced checks, wore opera capes to breakfast and reputedly gave Tennessee Williams some of his best material.
All the right ingredients for public service ran in Barbara's veins and early indications pointed to easy success. Even in school -- from first grade through college -- she was always elected class president. Yet despite her drive and intellectual commitment, she never successfully rose above the local level in politics. Having just returned from her funeral, however, I am reminded that to lay a ladder against a person's life and measure its success by rungs climbed is to confuse height with influence. In fact, she did seek to rise higher. But she never lost the understanding that public service, at every level, is a privilege and, for someone of Barbara's temperament, a necessity.
In 1982, the same year she lost a race for Congress, Barbara discovered a melanoma behind her left eye, which was removed to prevent further spreading. In 1983, she was elected mayor of Princeton by a large majority and put the cancer behind her. Then, in 1989, the year she ran unsuccessfully for governor, the cancer returned, claiming her entire body, including the area behind her remaining eye.
During her last year, Barbara continued serving as mayor and astonished even her closest friends by publishing a book of poetry that was both polished and profound. "Whether I go into eternal darkness/or into unrelenting light/I shall miss the interplay between the two/that, except on endless flat gray days/makes our earth a joyful, bouncing place." She feared blindness more than dying and called her remaining seeing eye "a glutton, a lecher, and a drunk" that could not get enough of what it saw. Barbara planned her own funeral in Churchillian detail, down to the parking -- which she wanted to be free. Then she put a double asterisk by that and wrote, "I've changed my mind about this. The borough needs the money." That was the only request her family reversed. Parking was free. But on the day of her funeral, there were too many people to park anywhere. Mourners walked through the town toward Princeton University Chapel, which holds 2,000 people but was not quite large enough to hold us all.
An impressive phalanx of senators, congressmen, judges and other high officials attended the service. But it was love, not obligation, that drew the vast majority of mourners. Among them were her children's former babysitters, a large contingent of battered women for whom Barbara had founded a shelter and almost every couple she had married -- one of her favorite mayoral tasks. An American Legionnaire sat next to a physics professor who sat next to some children who helped decorate the town parking meters with funny hats the day Barbara decided to throw a birthday party on their 50th year of installation.
Old, young, rich, poor, black and white, we all arrived at the funeral feeling smug in the knowledge that Barbara viewed us as a person apart and special from everybody else she knew and viewed. Egos were being silently adjusted in every pew.
The casket was borne by Barbara's three sons and various nephews toward a row of priests, ministers and rabbis who took part in the service. Behind it came the family and then the special guests wearing purple armbands. (Purple was her favorite color and local merchants had tacked a purple ribbon on every tree from her house to Borough Hall.) The Princeton volunteer firemen were first, hats tucked stiffly under their arms, then the borough employees, road crews, janitors, secretaries, sewer workers, police officers. If Barbara was trying to make a political point posthumously, it was to let the mourners teach each other that this is what we should strive to be: a political body at peace. That afternoon everybody was.
At first glance, Princeton looks like an affluent, exquisitely tasteful town that could run itself quite well without any mayor, let anyone one of Barbara's talents. But in fact there are many factions: descendants of Italian stonecutters who were brought over to build Princeton University, a large black community and a deep pool of New York commuters, government employees, professors and writers. To govern the town well took a brilliant mind and a populist heart. Barbara got the people to redesign the center of the city, tear out 200-year-old pipes, pave roads, install bike paths and -- her pride -- create beautiful low-income housing. She used to bring children into her office and tell them how much fun it was to be in government, not how much work.
Many people spoke at her funeral, including her son Paul, who read a letter written to him by his mother before he was born. "As surely as I am introducing you to life," she wrote, "I am introducing you to death, and against this knowledge you will shape your life."
A candlelight procession through silent Princeton followed the casket to its burial place. Then the family left, and five of Barbara's oldest friends remained behind. We surrounded the coffin as it descended, placed our hands upon the top and, reclaiming the hymn "Tantum Ergo" from our memories, we sang our old friend into the earth.
"In each class," wrote Matthew Arnold in his book "Culture and Anarchy," "there are born a certain number of natures with a curiosity about their best self, with a bent for seeing things as they are, for disentangling themselves from machinery, for simply concerning themselves with reason and the will of God, and doing their best to make these prevail . . . and this bent always tends to take them out of their class and to make their distinguishing characteristic their 'humanity.' They have, in general, a rough time of it in their lives."
Barbara would have disagreed. She loved her life until the end.
Phyllis Theroux, a Washington writer, was a college classmate of Barbara Sigmund.