More than two dozen members of Congress, along with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D), were present for Thursday’s service at St. Peter Catholic Church, one of two churches where Jones attended Mass every weekend when he was home.
“Walter was a man of strong convictions, deep faith and an immense love for the people of eastern North Carolina,” Cooper told the mourners.
Several of the speakers praised Jones’s dogged advocacy on behalf of members of the military. The district Jones represented in Congress includes the Marine Corps’s Camp Lejeune and the Cherry Point air station.
Connie Gruber, who delivered the opening eulogy, said she was there to honor the man who led a 14-year battle to clear the name of her husband, Maj. Brooks Gruber, and another pilot who died in a 2000 Osprey test flight.
Gruber said she wrote to members of Congress, President George W. Bush and Vice President Richard B. Cheney. It was Jones who first took the lead on the matter and pursued justice for her husband.
“Little did I know how blessed we would be when the one government leader who first stepped forward to help us just happened to have the backbone of an army and, when necessary, the stubbornness of a mule,” Gruber said.
In his homily, the Rev. Justin Kerber, who served for 15 years as pastor at St. Peter, praised Jones as “a man of absolute integrity.”
Kerber said he often prayed with Jones as the lawmaker prepared for difficult votes against the Bush administration after he changed course and declared his opposition to the Iraq War.
The war loomed large over Jones’s tenure on Capitol Hill. Jones voted for the 2003 invasion of Iraq and helped lead an effort to rename the french fries served in House cafeterias “freedom fries,” a jab at France for its opposition to the war.
But he later underwent a dramatic change of heart and emerged as a vocal critic of the war. He began writing to relatives of every U.S. service member killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by 2017 had signed more than 12,000 letters to families who had lost loved ones in the wars.
Joshua Bowlen, Jones’s longtime chief of staff, said the congressman “became a second father to me.” He described Jones as “the most honorable public servant of our time,” praising his “kindness and his courage” and noting that Jones was once voted the nicest member of Congress.
“He earned that award for good reason . . . He was never too important to stop and talk to the stranger, the intern or the stranger who just introduced themselves in the food aisle,” Bowlen said.
Mourners began gathering hours before the service on a cool, sunny day in Greenville.
Levi Clemons, a retired Army staff sergeant from Pactolus, N.C., and a former commander of the Pitt County chapter of Disabled American Veterans, said he wanted to pay his respects to the man who for years had stood by him and his comrades.
“Walter has been our friend in Congress. Walter would always fight for the people,” said Clemons, who served in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War.
Several of Jones’s House colleagues who attended the service paid tribute to his rare ability to forge personal relationships across the aisle.
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) said nearly 30 members of Congress from both parties had made the trip to the funeral, a testament to how well Jones was respected. He called the service a fitting tribute to Jones’s “lifelong service and his commitment to political independence.”
Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) said Jones could often be found sitting in the center row of the House chamber, holding court with members of both parties.
“He had a gift for friendship, a ready wit, and a warmth that you don’t always see in politics, and it overcomes a lot of political barriers,” Price said in an interview. “The humility, the sincerity, the conscientiousness — all of those are traits that aren’t always present in our politics these days.”
Price said the outpouring of respect for Jones was also reflective of a concern that civility and mutual respect in politics seems to be slipping away.
“I think Walter would have been unusual in any age, really,” he said. “He was a unique character. The kind of personal relationships, the cultivating of those, that’s the hallmark of our politics. If the country loses that and it all just becomes hard-edge ideology, I think the country is in trouble.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Jones was the only member of Congress who responded to Connie Gruber. He was one of several who responded, and the story has been corre cted.
Sonmez reported from Washington.