published Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Former Sen. Howard Baker remembered for crossing the aisle

The flag draped casket of former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker Jr. is carried to the gravesite at First Presbyterian Church on Tuesday in Huntsville, Tenn.
The flag draped casket of former U.S. Sen. Howard Baker Jr. is carried to the gravesite at First Presbyterian Church on Tuesday in Huntsville, Tenn.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

HUNTSVILLE, Tenn. — Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., a man revered by two political parties and mourned by vice presidents, international dignitaries and local neighbors alike, was laid to rest Tuesday in the cemetery across the street from the house in which he grew up.

Baker, who was 88 when he died at his home here last week, was remembered for his civility, his warmth and his ability to bring two sides together.

His funeral did the same.

Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat and former Senate colleague, arrived by police-escorted motorcade with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid from Knoxville shortly before the 1 p.m. service at the First Presbyterian Church in the tiny Appalachian town.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee were also on hand, along with U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr., R-Knoxville, and Gov. Bill Haslam.

The service also drew a large contingent of former senators, including those who served with him and after him.

Former Sens. Fred Thompson, Elizabeth Dole, Bennett Johnston, John Danforth and Pete Domenici were there to pay homage, according to family friend and former Baker aide Tom Griscom.

The Japanese ambassador and former Vice President Al Gore, a Democrat who succeeded Baker in the Senate, also attended.

"Howard Baker was a servant of the people of America in a way few people have had the honor of matching," Gore told the News Sentinel. "His courage saw us through some tough times -- Watergate, the Iran Contra matter, and many others.

"He was unfailingly courteous and wise. When I say that all Tennesseans will miss him, I hope it doesn't sound like a boiler plate," Gore said. "He set a standard for all of us to live by."

A smattering of local residents lined local streets from the highway to the church in the center of town, and American flags hung on the utility poles along Huntsville Drive.

More than 140 people attended the service, Griscom said, and mourners who could not find a seat in the sanctuary spilled into the church's fellowship hall.

Baker's survivors include widow Nancy Kassebaum, the former Republican senator from Kansas, and Baker's children, Darek and Cissy.

The Rev. Martha Anne Fairchild delivered a sermon and Alexander, Baker's friend, one-time aide and baby-sitter to his children, delivered the eulogy. As a World War II Navy veteran, he received full military honors.

The funeral was closed to the press, but according to a distributed copy of his remarks, Alexander told stories of Baker's courage, heart and humor.

Alexander opened his eulogy recalling with the 1960 Illinois State Fair, when Baker was a 34-year-old lawyer married to a senator's daughter.

Sen. Everett Dirksen gave a speech on why voters should elect Richard Nixon for president over eventual winner John F. Kennedy, pointing to experience.

"Jack Kennedy is a nice young man," Dirksen told the crowd. "But all they can say he has ever done was serve on a PT boat in World War II.

"Why my son-in-law, Howard H. Baker Jr. was on a PT boat, and I've never heard anyone suggest he was qualified to serve in any public office."

Before the service, Alexander told reporters that he wanted to remind Tennesseans of Baker's courage, conviction and sense of home.

"He supported civil rights when most Southerners didn't. He ratified the Panama Canal Treaty when that was hard to do," Alexander said.

"He kept his feet on the ground here in Huntsville," he said. "He always lived here. Some people in political life, who get so-called important, forget where they came from.

"But he never stopped sounding like where he grew up," Alexander said.

Though Baker was beloved in his hometown, he also was admired nationally.

Gov. Haslam pointed to the bipartisan delegation from Washington as evidence of Baker's reputation and reception in Washington.

They are "all here because they see the unique contribution Sen. Baker made," Haslam said. "As a Tennessean, I hope everybody's proud that one of our own had that kind of impact on the world."

Contact Megan Boehnke st boehnkem@knoxnews.com or 865-342-6432.

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