PITTSFIELD, MASS., FEB. 13 -- Mourned by thousands of friends and dozens of the nation's top political leaders, Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R) was buried today near his birthplace in the Berkshire Hills that he represented for 32 years in Congress.
Conte, who died Friday at age 69 after three years of battling prostate cancer, was remembered as a man of many appetites: for his country, his family, the Red Sox, hunting, fishing, pasta and opera.
In a 2 1/2-hour funeral Mass at St. Joseph's Church, the liberal Republican was saluted by clergy and friends from both political parties.
Former House speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill recalled his friendship with Conte and the years together representing their state in Washington. "I was Sil's pal and knew him over 40 years," O'Neill said. "Sadness is not what we think of when we think of Sil Conte."
Citing Conte's exuberant "love of life," O'Neill described his friend as "plaids and stripes together" and said, "It's final adjournment, 'til we meet again."
Joining O'Neill were Vice President Quayle, several members of the Cabinet, House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), Minority Leader Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.), a delegation of nearly 100 other House members and the state's top political leaders -- Gov. William F. Weld (R) and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D) and John Kerry (D).
Conte's death marked a turning point for the Massachusetts congressional delegation, which over two centuries had held a rank and sway out of proportion to the state's small and stable population.
To be sure, Conte never reached the political heights of the presidents or House speakers who have come from Massachusetts. He was too much in the minority for that: An Italian in an Irish milieu, a Republican in a Democratic House and a liberal in a conservative party.
But the death of the delegation's dean and the last member to enter the House during the Eisenhower administration leaves 10 relatively young and less influential members representing the state.
The transition began in 1986 with O'Neill's retirement. While the speaker, who had entered the House in 1952, tried to leave a legacy of well-placed members from Massachusetts, turnover and rules changes limited his power to entrench his fellow Bay Staters.
Then, in 1988, Rep. Edward P. Boland (D), who had come to Washington with O'Neill and was his roommate there for many years, announced his retirement. Boland had represented Springfield, in the district adjoining Conte's, for 36 years and was second-ranking member of the Appropriations Committee when he retired.
The two longest-serving members are Rep. Joe Moakley (D), whom O'Neill positioned to become chairman of the Rules Committee, and Rep. Gerry E. Studds (D), who chairs the fisheries subcommittee.
Some other members exert influence: Rep. Edward J. Markey (D) chairs the subcommittee on telecommunications, which is important to some Massachusetts high-tech firms; Rep. Nicholas Mavroules (D) is one of the senior members on the Armed Services Committee, a perch from which he can look after the state's military contracts.
But as a group, the Massachusetts delegation has seen its power ebb, and it faces the likely loss of another seat in this year's redistricting. Conte's district is often mentioned as a target for redrawing, but knowledgeable Democrats in the legislature -- who will draft the redistricting plans, subject to veto by Weld -- discount that theory.
They point out that Conte's district is too geographically remote and demographically stable to play much of a role in redistricting.
Most of the severely gerrymandered districts as well as the population swings are found in the districts around Boston and its suburbs.
Although Conte usually won by large margins and often had no opponent, his district is heavily Democratic. The Republicans have a possible advantage in having all but closed ranks behind Steven Pierce of Westfield, the former state House minority leader who lost last year's gubernatorial primary. But there is also speculation that Corinne Conte, the congressman's widow, could be a candidate.
Among Democrats, there is no lack of possibilities. Among those mentioned are state Sen. John Olver of Amherst, Berkshire County Sheriff Carmen Massimiano of Pittsfield, several state representatives and former public works commissioner Jane Garvey.
The governor has not set a date for the primary and special election but it is likely the primaries will be in mid-May and a runoff in late June.