The casket containing the body of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg is carried June 5 into the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. Lautenberg's nearly three decades in office and the causes he championed were remembered at a funeral service in New York. (Seth Wenig / AP)
NEW YORK — U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s journey from a childhood so poor his family couldn’t afford his bar mitzvah to his life as a multimillionaire businessman who served for decades in the Senate was remembered Wednesday at a funeral in New York City packed with dignitaries.
“He came out fighting, and he never stopped,” Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove told mourners, including Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, several former governors and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“… Frank would always be a man of the people and for the people, never forgetting his humble start,” Cosgrove said. He began the service with a Hebrew blessing while Lautenberg’s wife and children stood near the senator’s flag-draped casket.
Lautenberg, a liberal Democrat from New Jersey, died Monday after suffering complications from viral pneumonia. At 89, he was the oldest member of the Senate and the last of 115 World War II veterans to serve there.
Reflecting on such signature Lautenberg accomplishments as the laws that banned smoking on most U.S. flights and made 21 the drinking age in all 50 states, Cosgrove said it seems difficult now to imagine “that those matters which were undoubtedly fierce debates of their time, and for which Senator Lautenberg withstood withering criticism, now, in retrospect, appear as inevitable and obvious as they seem necessary.”
Biden and Clinton were also set to speak at the service. Dozens were designated as honorary pallbearers, including 17 senators — mostly Democrats, among them Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but also a few Republicans, including Sens. Richard Shelby of Alabama and Marco Rubio of Florida.
A color guard ceremony was also scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at the Frank Lautenberg Rail Station in Secaucus, N.J., outside New York City. In Secaucus, his casket was to be put on an Amtrak train to Washington.
Lautenberg was an ardent defender of Amtrak and worked to secure hundreds of millions of dollars for mass transit projects.
His casket was set to arrive at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday and lie in repose in the Senate chamber, on the Lincoln Catafalque, a bier that was built for the coffin of Abraham Lincoln.
Lautenberg, who served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, will be buried Friday at Arlington National Cemetery.
Lautenberg’s story “was an American story, but in his heart and in his lifetime, he was a man from New Jersey, a kid from Paterson,” U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey said during the service.
A multimillionaire businessman, Lautenberg was first elected to the Senate in 1982 and went on to serve nearly 30 years there in two stints.
Lautenberg’s second daughter, Nan Morgart, said that during her father’s brief retirement from the Senate, “he was so bored” that he’d call her daily to ask how many products she’d sold at her job as a sales representative for IBM. “I not only had a quota from IBM but an arbitrary quota from my dad,” she said with a laugh.
Lautenberg won his last race in 2008 at age 84, becoming the first New Jersey politician elected to five Senate terms. He had announced earlier this year he would not seek another term in 2014.
Lautenberg’s eldest daughter, Ellen Lautenberg, said her father’s life story “shaped my path by demonstrating that there are always new opportunities to learn and grow.”
Associated Press writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.