NEW YORK – In a moving ceremony that was also filled with laughter, Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s family and colleagues recalled him Wednesday as a feisty, dedicated and determined man whose personal history shaped his work – while also describing a personal side rarely seen in public.
Lautenberg’s funeral service at an Upper East Side synagogue his wife attends drew 41 senators, six members of Congress, Gov. Christie and former Govs. Jon Corzine, Jim McGreevey and Jim Florio, as well as eulogies from Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez. The ornate Park Avenue Synagogue, which holds 1,100 people, was full.
Colleagues recalled Lautenberg’s life story, how he rose from modest roots to earn wealth and a prestigious office, and his legislative legacy – fighting for a national drinking age of 21, to ban smoking on domestic flights, to support women’s rights, prevent domestic abusers from getting guns and to ensure that public transit was funded in his state.
But Lautenberg’s family also gave touching glimpses of the senator’s personality, describing how he loved hot dogs and skiing and used to sprint between offices; how he used to speak to them in a fake German accent; how he could be just as combative, argumentative and stubborn at home as he was in public and how he tried to use his limited knowledge of foreign languages to impress people on trips abroad and at dinners – even if, according to one step-daughter, the only Italian he knew was the phrase for “no garlic.”
They lovingly recalled how he told the same jokes and stories all the time, and pestered them constantly for phone numbers, or with backseat driving instructions.
Colleagues and his wife also said he desperately wanted to run for a sixth senate term and talked about rescinding his resignation announcement in recent weeks, even as his health failed. Biden said Lautenberg “desperately” wanted to run again, and that they spoke about the possibility over the winter, but that the senator was limited by his health.
Lautenberg’s wife, Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg, described being married to the senator as “difficult, interesting, challenging, loving, amazing.”
She said the senator didn’t want to face his own mortality, leaving his burial arrangements unfinished. The only thing that would have made Lautenberg happier than seeing so many political colleagues turn out to honor him, she said, was if it was for a fund-raiser for another election.
“Had he been well, he would have put up a good fight to stay in the Senate,” she said in her speech concluding the service.
She finished her speech with the words, “rest in peace, my love, I will miss you always. And thank you for the most beautiful memories and an extraordinary life."
As the flag-covered casket was carried out of the synagogue, a quintet played “America the Beautiful.” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) reached out and touched the casket.
While many wiped away tears, much of the roughly two-and-a-half-hour ceremony was filled with outbursts of laughter – usually caused by anecdotes delivered by Lautenberg’s children.
Nan Lautenberg Morgart, one of his daughters, said she inherited her father’s zest for life, energy level and “incredible stubbornness and the attitude that we are always right and no one else is.”
When her father was briefly out of the Senate and she worked in marketing for IBM, she said, “he was so bored that he called me every day” to ask what she had sold that day. She said Lautenberg bragged about speaking seven languages – but would use one word from each as he tried to order food in their travels through Europe.
“That was my dad, so confident and determined. He owned the room,” she said.
Lisa Lautenberg Birer, whose speech was read by her daughter because her voice was hoarse, ran down a list of statistical memories from Lautenberg’s nearly 30 years in office. Among them, she joked: 200 pieces of “Lautenberg for Senate” paraphernalia, and 3,000 pieces of his opponents’ materials that she pulled down during campaigns.
Also: 300 new friends she lost in college when Lautenberg forced through a national drinking age of 21.
Josh Lautenberg said his father “thrived on being a pest at times,” and described him as one of the worst back-seat driver in history. Next to the train station named for his father, Josh joked, “is the Frank Lautenberg personal driver rehabilitation center.”
He later said Lautenberg was his family’s “compass.”
“He always knew the way, even if it was the longest way,” he said.
Danielle Englebardt, one of two step-daughters, said Lautenberg simply called her “Step One.” She said they initially “hated each other” and that she clashed with the senator, who “was never wrong.”
And, she added, at the time she didn’t know or care what a senator was. “Sorry,” she quickly said to the senators in attendance – who laughed.
(They later guffawed when she described how her step-father, as a prank, once introduced her to the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, who responded by saying it looked like she needed a hug. “Boy, did I get one,” Englebardt quipped, adding that he was “quite affectionate.” The senators in the audience turned bright red).
“In private life, he fought sometimes just because he felt like fighting,” Englebardt said. But she cried as she described her love for Lautenberg, and how they grew close over time. “We would still fight … but fights would end with a smile and one of us saying, ‘you’re wrong, but I still love you.’”
There were many touching moments. Josh Lautenberg thanked the senator’s staff – who filled a section on the side of the synagogue – and said he worried for each of them, and hoped they would find a path forward in their careers.
Speaker after speaker recalled how Lautenberg focused on environmental protection after his father, who worked in Paterson, N.J.’s silk mills, died of cancer, and how his modest upbringing and the help he got from the G.I. Bill fueled his belief in an active government that could aid people in need.
“He was just there to help everyone,” Josh Lautenberg said.
Lautenberg’s four children and two step-children spoke, as did several of his 13 grandchildren.
Dignitaries praised his work and personality.
“When Frank was your friend, he was your friend,” Biden said. He later added, “Most of all, Frank had the courage of his convictions and he acted on those convictions.”
Biden added that the two spoke often this past winter about whether Lautenberg should have stayed on to seek a sixth senate term.
“Your dad never quit, he never quit anything,” Biden said to the senator’s children, his voice dropping to a near whisper. “He never gave up, never gave in.”
He said he believed Lautenberg could win, that "even Christie" would vote for him. (The governor, who often clashed with Lautenberg, waved at the vice president as many laughed).
Biden also talked about their mutual love of Amtrak, joking that he saved the rail agency three times before Lautenberg was even elected. He told one story about racing to catch a train home, sprinting through Union Station in Washington, D.C., only for a conductor to tell him, “don’t worry, we’re waiting for Lautenberg.”
Biden, a long-time Senate colleague, concluded “He was a man. He was a real man.”
Clinton recalled how the two would sit together on the Senate floor during long voting sessions, and how Lautenberg always invoked his children and grandchildren when fighting for public safety laws.
“Frank always had something to say. It was usually a running commentary,” Clinton said. And she lauded his constant fight for women’s rights. “He would have been one of the first to say he did it for his daughters and his granddaughters.”
Menendez recalled Lautenberg as “one of the most tenacious men I have ever met” and described him as a “man of New Jersey, a kid from Patterson.”
“I will remember his life as a testament to what is possible to achieve in America,” Menendez said. “Thank you Frank for a life well lived and a job well done.”
The audience was filled with some of the country’s and New Jersey’s political elite. Among those in attendance were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) and senators such as Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), who worked with Lautenberg on bills barring smoking on domestic flights.
Christie was seated next to McGreevey – who the current governor once investigated. The two spoke quietly. Nearby was Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who has been planning a senate run to replace Lautenberg, and U.S. Reps. Rush Holt and Frank Pallone, who are also mulling senate bids.
State Sen. Barbara Buono, the Democratic nominee for governor, was there, as was former Sen. and vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman.
A Lautenberg friend, Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell, sang two of the senator’s favorite songs: “The Impossible Dream” from the musical Man of La Mancha and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.”
Clinton, who spoke after the songs, said she could “see the casket vibrating” as Stokes Mitchell sang.
At the end of the ceremony, after Lautenberg’s casket was carried out, it was to be brought to the Secaucus Amtrak station bearing his name for a ceremony. On Thursday he will lay in state on the Senate floor – becoming only the second senator so honored, according to his wife.
On Friday Lautenberg, a World War II veteran, will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.