About midday, Bonnie K. Allen circled two parking lots and finally decided to park on the street in the last available space close to St. Peter Catholic Church.
“I knew it was going to be packed so I thought I would get here a little early,” Allen said when he stepped out of his truck. “People have already started coming.”
Allen came to the church Thursday to pay his respects to his childhood and lifelong friend U.S. Rep. Walter Jones. He was one of hundreds that filled the pews in the church and a large room at the side of the church that had two big screens to view the funeral and 289 chairs that were nearly all filled.
Allen said he remembered Jones’ father, who was also a congressman, coming to eat in his parents restaurant, Bonnie’s Cafe, in downtown Farmville.
“Walter was just a little boy then,” he said. “I was two months older than him. We used to shoot hoops together. He really wanted to play for N.C. State. But we were a little short.”
Allen laughed as his eyes seemed to focus on the memories.
“He has always been a nice fellow,” he said before walking toward the church.
The Very Rev. Justin Kerber, who gave the homily during the mass, talked about how Jones loved his wife Joe Anne and daughter Ashley deeply and always proudly spoke of his daughter.
“Walter cared for all the people that God placed in his life,” Kerber said. “He cared for the people of this Third Congressional District. He respected, especially the military. Great reverence and love for them, the men and women who sacrificed so much. And as he was caring for all these peoples, he was caring for Christ: ‘Whatever you do for the least one you do for Me.’”
Kerber said he located in Greenville in 1998 from New York and was pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church for 15 years, knowing Jones from the beginning. They hit if off immediately and Kerber said he could not understand that, a northerner and a southerner hitting off so easily. He asked himself recently why that was.
“It was because we had a great love for the Catholic church and because both of us knew that Jesus was at the center of our hearts,” Kerber said.
Jones would drive back to his home in Farmville on the weekends when he was free from his congressional duties and would go to Saturday mass at St. Peter and usually attend a second mass at St. Elizabeth’s Church in Farmville on Sundays, Kerber said.
“I visited him in his Washington office a number of times,” he said. “And I remember the first time. He asked all of his staff to come into his office and everyone had to kneel down on the floor and we prayed that God would bless our country, their work and the people they served and he asked me to bless them all, that they do God’s work.”
Jones also called Kerber many times and once when he felt he had to split from the administration on a vote over the war in Iraq.
“He said ‘Father I want to do what God wants me to do, pray with me that I will always have the courage to do what is right,’” Kerber said. “...He was a man of absolute integrity. God came before anything else.”
Kerber said he could hear Jones’ pain when he had to write to a mother or father who had lost a son or daughter in the military.
“He shared with me his anguish over the Iraq war,” Kerber said. “He had a crucifix on his office wall. A good, devout, loving man, outstanding Catholic, a loyal American, a servant of his constituents, serving with generousness and kindness. But first a husband and father and before that a disciple of the Lord.”
Rufus Edmisten, a former N.C. secretary of state, attorney general and candidate for governor in 1984, was the last of six people who eulogized Jones. He said before speaking that he overheard someone saying the mass was going on too long, ‘Why don’t we drop Rufus.’
“No you’re not going to get...No, no I’m not going to let that happen,” Edmisten said, causing laughter.
Edmisten said Jones always asked him to tell him his lawyer joke that Jones loved. Edmisten was in Haywood County campaigning, riding in a parade when a women walked up beside his car and asked what he was running for this time.
“I said I’m running for attorney general,” Edmisten said. “She said ‘You still a lawyer?’ I said yes I am. And she said ‘Well I’ll have you know I’m not going to vote for no dern lawyer.' I said don’t worry about me. I ain’t much of a lawyer.” Everyone laughed. “Walter loved that joke. I don’t know why.”
Edmisten said he got to know Jones’ father when he was a congressman and his mother when he would go to United Methodist Building where they were living in Washington. The same place his boss, Sen. Sam Ervin lived.
There was a pipe organ in the basement of the Methodist Building, he said.
“And Walter (Sr.) and I would maybe get into a little bit of the blind...Uh,” Edmisten turned to glance at the priests sitting behind him while everyone laughed, “and we would sing (while Jones’ mother played the pipe organ).”
Edmisten said that was a good way to bond with a friend. Then he met young Walter, he said.
About 10 years ago Jones asked Edmisten if he would do a fundraiser for him. Edmisten said he wouldn’t get invited to Jones’ fundraisers because he was a Democrat.
“He said ‘Look I can’t get the regular Republicans to move, so ….,’” Edmisten said, getting cut off by laughter. “So we had several fundraisers and believe it or not the place overflowed every time with Democrats and Republicans. It showed what a blessing this man was to so many people.”
Edmisten said the most important thing about being in public service is constituent service and “nobody ever had a better staff than Walter B. Jones Jr. on Capitol Hill.”
Edmisten paid tribute to his old friend with a poem he had a found called “When I’m Gone,” which he read to him after the death of his niece and Jones said he would like it read at his funeral.
“When I’ve come to the end of my journey
And I’ve travel my last weary mile
Just forget if you can, that I ever frowned
And remember only the smile
Forget unkind words I have spoken
Remember some good I have done
Forget that I ever had heartache
And remember I’ve had loads of fun
Forget that I’ve stumbled and blundered
And sometimes fell by the way
Remember I have fought some hard battles
And won, ere the close of the day
Then forget to grieve for my going
I would not have you sad for a day
But in summer just gather some flowers
And remember the place where I lay
And come in the shade of evening
When the sun paints the sky in the west
Stand for a few moments beside me
And remember only my best.”
“Thank you Walter,” Edmisten said.
The poem “When I’m Gone” was written by Mrs. Lyman Hancock