DEARBORN, Mich. — Former colleagues including Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) paid tribute to John D. Dingell at 30,000 feet on Tuesday as their flight to Michigan for the lawmaker’s funeral was turned back because of wintry weather.
The funeral for Dingell, the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history, went ahead with former vice president Joe Biden eulogizing the Michigan Democrat.
“Dignity was how John walked. Dignity was how John talked. Dignity was how John carried himself. And more than that, it was how he treated everyone — and I mean everyone,” Biden said at the service at the Church of the Divine Child.
Dingell died Feb. 7 at age 92. He had complications from prostate cancer.
According to two Democratic aides, the two military transport planes taking lawmakers to the funeral were unable to land in Detroit because of bad weather and were forced to return to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) tweeted that lawmakers held an “impromptu service at 30,000 feet” for Dingell, led by Lewis, Upton and Pelosi.
“After a delayed start we took off for #Detroit & circled there for an hour waiting for the temperature to rise one degree,” Long said in the tweet. “It didn’t and we’re back at @Andrews_JBA.”
Several other lawmakers, including Sen. Gary Peters and Reps. Daniel Kildee and Haley Stevens, all Michigan Democrats, tweeted that they were disappointed that their plane was turned around and that they were unable to attend the service for Dingell in Michigan.
“We shared a prayer for him in the sky, and felt a bit closer to the Dean in heaven,” Stevens said in a tweet, referring to Dingell’s title as the longest-serving House member.
Upton told the Detroit Free Press that nearly 90 lawmakers were aboard the two flights.
House Chaplain Patrick J. Conroy had been scheduled to deliver the homily. But he, too, was aboard one of the diverted flights, so the Rev. Terrence Kerner stepped in on short notice.
“Ten minutes before Mass, I found out I was preaching, thinking I had nothing prepared to say,” Kerner said. “Then, I remembered John had a sense of humor.”
Later Tuesday, members of Congress paid their respects to Dingell as his casket was flown to Washington and carried by motorcade past the U.S. Capitol. Dingell will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery,
Dingell served in Congress from 1955 until he retired in 2015.
In a piece for The Washington Post dictated to his wife, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), Dingell urged lawmakers never to lose sight of the fact that they serve at the will of the people.
“In democratic government, elected officials do not have power,” he said. “They hold power — in trust for the people who elected them. If they misuse or abuse that public trust, it is quite properly revoked (the quicker the better).”
Tuesday’s service came on the eve of what would have been the Dingells’ 38th wedding anniversary. The funeral included a rendition of “Ave Maria,” which was also performed at the Dingells’ wedding mass.
In his eulogy, Biden told those in attendance that Dingell “fought like hell” for others and said that so many were mourning the former congressman not because they necessarily knew him, but “because they knew John knew them.”
“He gave me confidence. He made me believe more in myself than I had. John had that special capacity to do so, because when you were with him, you knew you were with greatness,” Biden said.
Among the public figures attending the funeral were Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), former senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and former congressman Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.). The pallbearers included Dingell’s former staff members.
Dingell entered Congress after he won a special election to replace his father, John D. Dingell Sr., who died of tuberculosis while in office. Biden told the crowd Tuesday that Dingell often remarked to his colleagues on Capitol Hill, “If I can be half the man my father was, I shall feel I’m a great success.”
“You know your success as a dad when you turn and look at your child and realize they turned out better than you,” Biden said. “My sons turned out better than me, and John’s dad’s son turned out better.”
Heather Ridgley, who was serving as an usher at the funeral, said she originally didn’t know much about Dingell but learned more after reading a news article about his life and listening to Biden’s remembrance of him.
Ridgley said she was particularly touched by the former vice president’s remark about “the average worker never knowing [Dingell], but being known by him.”
“He was working for me and my family, and I didn’t even know it,” she said of Dingell.
Sonmez reported from Washington.