Biden remembers ‘amazing soul’ of John Dingell as hundreds mourn

John Dingell funeral mass, Dearborn, Dec. 12, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Former Vice President Joe Biden remembered his friend, the late John Dingell Jr., as an “amazing soul” and “a master” during a 90-minute public mass held Tuesday in Dearborn.

John Dingell | Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan photo, Flickr

“There are only a few who I looked up to and admired what they did. … John Dingell was the man,” said Biden at a service at the Church of the Divine Child.

John Dingell died on Feb. 7 in his Dearborn home after a battle with cancer. He was 92. Coincidentally, it was 10 years ago this week that Dingell became the longest-serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He would later break U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd’s record in 2013 and become the longest-serving member of Congress.

“Dignity was how John walked,” Biden said. “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.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the funeral for the late former U.S. Representative John Dingell at Church of the Divine Child in Dearborn on Tuesday, February 12, 2019 | Pool photo

Dingell won a special election in 1955 to replace his father, John Dingell Sr., after his untimely death. The younger Dingell was elected 30 times to the U.S. House, serving from 1955 to 2015 — 59 years and 21 days.

He was revered by both Democrats and Republicans and was a champion on issues of civil rights, government-sponsored health care and energy and environment. He also was an avid hunter and unflagging supporter of the domestic auto industry. He spent years as chairman of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee and was known as “The Truck.”

Before his passing, Dingell wrote one last op-ed on his vision for America, which was published in the Washington Post.

Debbie Dingell outside the service | Ken Coleman

A visitation was held on Monday, with Dingell’s wife, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), personally greeting mourners.

An ice storm that closed schools and government offices in Michigan kept away two of Tuesday’s scheduled speakers U.S. Reps. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and John Lewis (D-Ga.), along with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). U.S. Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) tweeted that legislators held an impromptu service on the flight that couldn’t land in Detroit.

But those who made it to the memorial smiled and cried in the church’s main sanctuary. People of all walks of the attended the mass, including union workers, law enforcement officials, lawmakers, judges, armed services veterans, automotive officials and clergy.

Outside the service | Ken Coleman

One of them, 17-year-old Erik Hayes, stood dutifully in the back of the sanctuary with his eyes peeled and his back perfectly straight. The Allen Park High School student and Dearborn Police explorer post cadet, who also worked a 17-hour shift yesterday during the Dingell public viewing, was born in 2002 — the year Dingell was elected to his 25th term on Capitol Hill.

Elliott Hall, a former lead Washington, D.C., lobbyist for Ford Motor Company, remembers Dingell showing him “the ropes” on Capitol Hill in 1987.

“John Dingell was the automobile legislator for the United States,” Hall recalled just before the mass. “He was my best friend and best advocate in protecting issues that were important to the industry, auto safety regulation, fuel economy, taxes, labor issues. He was very helpful me.”

Mass program | Ken Coleman

Westland Mayor Bill Wild said Dingell was “like a grandfather to me in the world of politics.”

“He was mentor to me. I’ve gone through a couple of tough races for higher office and gave me a lot of good advice,” he said. “Some of the advice — I didn’t understand it at the time, but I learned to understand it later.”

Irma Clark-Coleman, a former state House and Senate member and Wayne County Commission member, recalls seeking Dingell’s advice when she was deciding whether to run in 2002 for a state Senate seat that included Dearborn, as well as her hometown of Detroit.

“The first person that I met with after [former Wayne County Executive] Ed McNamara was John Dingell,” she said. “… He gave me his blessing. He welcomed me in Dearborn and he opened up a lot of doors. If John Dingell accepts you, everybody accepts you.”  

Clark-Coleman won that election and served two terms.

Irma Clark-Coleman | Ken Coleman

A funeral service is scheduled for Thursday in Washington, D.C. As a World War II-era veteran of the U.S. Army, Dingell will be interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

Several speakers are slated for the mass held at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Washington, including former President Bill Clinton, who talked to Dingell on the phone just before his passing. The congressman’s longtime friend, U.S. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), and former U.S. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) also are scheduled to memorialize Dingell.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.


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