Angelo LoVecchio, president of the International Plate Printers, Die Stampers and Engravers Union, remembered George Meany as his poker-and cribbage-playing buddy.
Virgil Day, a former vice president at General Electric, recalled his sometime foe as a battle-toughened negotiator who "always played as if he had aces back to back."
An AFL-CIO janitor simply recalled Meany as the man who had often greeted him in the hallway.
And so the low and the mighty, the politically prominent, the colleagues from the front lines of the labor movement, the diplomats, friends and relatives -- 1,055 in all -- streamed into St. Matthews Cathedral yesterday to pay their final tributes to George Meany, the embodiment of American Big Labor for the last quarter century.
President Carter was there and so were Vice President and Mrs. Mondale and Secretary of State and Mrs. Cyrus Vance. So were Carter's Democratic presidential foes, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and California Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown, and a dozen senators and representatives, many of them Meany's congressional allies over the years.
At least five past and present labor secretaries attended, as well as White Hosue officials, from Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan on down. A symbol of Big Money, Chase Manhattan Bank board chairman David Rockefeller, was there to pay his respects and so were New York Gov. Hugh Carey; former Sen. Muriel Humphrey, widow of that staunch labor supporter, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey; Robert Armao, the spokesman for the deposed shah of Iran; and Russian dissident Alexander Ginzburg.
Despite the presence of a virtual roster of the American political leadership, Meany was eulogized during the hour-and-15-minute Roman Catholic mass in the way he probably would have liked, as a tough voice for the American worker and as an American patriot.
Few seemed to shed any public tears over the death over the 85-year-old former plumber until Lane Kirkland, Meany's sucessor as president of the 14-million member AFL-CIO, gave a brief tribute to his mentor.
"Certainly he was not of the right," Kirkland said. "Surely he was not of the left, nor was he anchored in the center. He stood above such transient categories in resistance to all power directed against the rights of man and woman, and in affirmation of the role and the interests of plain people.
"And now we have faith that better days lie ahead for the working people of America, and of the world, because George Meany is up there, negotiating the matter with God," Kirkland said.
The man known as the "labor priest" for his work with the labor movement, Msgr. George C. Higgins, told the audience that Meany never publicized his deep religious faith, but "wore his patriotism on his sleeve, and unashamedly so.
"The quality of his patriotism, unfortunately, was misunderstood by some of his critics," Higgins said. "Mainly because they thought he was too inflexibly anticommunist, they wrote him off -- sometimes rather disdainfully -- as a myopic and narrow-minded chauvinist. They were wrong about that, completely wrong, in my opinion.
"In standing up consistently not only against communism but against any and all forms of totalitarianism . . . he was defending the cause of human rights, which for him were indivisible and were meant to be universal in their application," Higgins said.
As if to remind people that the tart-tongued Meany often was controversial in life, a couple of raucus demonstrators broke through a police line and rushed Meany's casket as several of his 14 grandchildren carried it into the cathedral.
The two protesters, a man and woman, shouted, "We're working people of this country." The woman slammed red and white leaflets advertising National May Day 1980 on the dark brown casket, but both the demonstrators were quickly tackled and arrested. They were released after being charged with disturbing a religious ceremony and forfeiting $25 in collateral, thus ending the legal case.
Outside the cathedral, in sunny but briskly chilling weather, numerous associates of Meany shared their remembrances of the sometimes gruff Meany.
Plate Printers chief LoVecchio said Meany was a man who had as much time for the tiny, 400-member union as he did for the giant steelworkers union.
Day, the former General Electric official and a management opponent of Meany in the Pay Board disputes of a decade ago, recalled him as "blunt, but also witty and incisive.
"He was willing to compromise," Day jokingly said. "He would adjust up to 1 percent and keep the other 99 percent" of his bargaining position.
Former New Jersey Sen. Clifford Case said he "never knew a man who was more perfectly fit for the job, combining strength, audacity, stubborness and, yes, arrogance. Yet he had a realization of the largest cause of the nation and peace."
Then the body of George Meany, Mr. Labor to millions of American workers, was driven away in a black hearse and buried in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring.