Thousands of Rhode Islanders bade farewell today to the late Sen. John Hubbard Chafee, a longtime father figure to the nation's smallest state and a symbol of moderate Republicanism in an era of partisan politics.
Chafee, one of the last of a New England breed of soldier-statesmen, died of heart failure last Sunday at age 77. His legacy--as a family man, war veteran and gentleman politician--was celebrated this morning at Grace Episcopal Church here in a ceremony attended by President Clinton, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, several Cabinet members, more than half of the U.S. Senate and a dozen former senators from both parties.
In a testament to Chafee's four decades of public service, the turnout also included a Who's Who of Rhode Island dignitaries, from state GOP grande dame Eileen Slocum and Republican Gov. Lincoln C. Almond to descendants of the Ocean State's earliest aristocracy, all of whom waited for hours outside before slowly proceeding through security checkpoints and squeezing into the church.
With roughly 800 people inside, more than 650 others watched the proceedings on a wide-screen television set at the nearby convention center.
"What a man, what a life," Zechariah Chafee, one of the senator's sons, told mourners in an address recalling his father's "cyclonic energy and political courage" in often humorous snapshots of his days as a Boy Scout, a champion wrestler at Yale, a Marine who fought at Guadalcanal and in the Korean War, a state legislator and a governor. Chafee also served as secretary of the Navy under President Richard M. Nixon and was in the Senate from 1976 until his death.
Earlier in the day, Chafee's flag-draped coffin was placed on a horse-drawn carriage and the procession wound past Chafee's district office and through quiet city streets lined with people paying tribute to a man known for his integrity and commitment to such issues as the environment and health care.
Chafee's five children, including Warwick Mayor Lincoln Chafee, who is running for his father's Senate seat, followed the carriage on foot. The late senator's wife, Virginia, and their grandchildren joined them in black limousines.
Presiding over the service, former senator John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), an Episcopal priest, recalled how he and Chafee debuted as senators in 1976. He recalled his former colleague as "one of the most upbeat men I knew," despite personal losses that included the death of a teenage daughter, two wars and political defeat.
Danforth praised Chafee as a legislator who sought to resolve issues through bridge-building, even if it meant defying his party.
"His goal wasn't stalemate where nothing could be done. His goal was consensus where a lot could be done. Literally, he was a lawmaker," Danforth said. "John Chafee brought us together. That is why he was so universally respected in the Senate. . . . We should memorialize him by taking up the work of bonding together."
Before leaving the White House to attend Chafee's funeral, Clinton announced that the 40th ship of the Arleigh Burke class of guided-missile destroyers, among the Navy's most technologically advanced ships, will be named after Chafee. "I can think of no better way to honor his many contributions than to name a warship in his honor," Clinton said.
Accompanying the Clintons to Rhode Island on Air Force One were Transportation Secretary Rodney E. Slater, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, according to the Associated Press. Also traveling with the president were Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) and Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.).
Others in attendance included Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), also a former Navy secretary, and former senator Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), who defeated Chafee in his first Senate race, as well as Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
Marines saluted as the casket was finally led away, and the church bell tolled 77 times, once for each year of Chafee's life. Family members and close friends slowly began the two-mile trek back to the State House for a reception before a private burial at the family farm in Warwick. Chafee had announced in March that he would not seek reelection next year because he said, "I want to go home."
CAPTION: Virginia Chafee, wife of the late Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), and son John Chafee Jr. leave a church in Providence after the longtime senator's funeral.