There's an old Methodist hymn that many of us know - When we all get to heaven. It is very loosely based on the passage from the Gospel of Saint John, Chapter 14, Verse 2, the familiar scripture relating the many rooms of the House of God according to his son Jesus. Well, maybe it is. The writer, Eliza Hewitt, wrote it in the 1890s and along with the composer, Emily Wilson, was a regular at Methodist Camp Meetings in New Jersey. If you've ever been to camp, you know there is a lot of fellowship, a lot of praying, and a lot of singing going on amongst friends close and not-so-close - like a big family reunion of those folks you only see at weddings and funerals. Today's occasion for a blogpost was a funeral service of sorts, the State Memorial Service of the late Wendell Hampton Ford, former State Senator, Lieutenant Governor, Governor, and United States Senator, and a personal if somewhat distant friend. Ford died January 22, 2015 at the age of 90.
I posted on Facebook a few days ago my first introduction to Wendell Ford in 1971, a rally for the election of Wendell Ford and Julian Carroll held at the old Okolona Democratic Headquarters followed by a parade out to Southern High School and another rally. There would be many more meetings including one about six months later as I served as a page in the Senate, serving then-State Senators Tom Mobley and Walter Huddleston. During the week, on February 18, 1972, I dropped into the Governor's Office and introduced myself to everyone. I was 11 years old at the time. Governor Ford sent me a letter later than day recounting my visiting his office as if it was the most natural thing in the world to do. After visiting every-so-often with my grandmother, who probably did consider it second nature, I can only say I was following in her footsteps. I still have that letter.
Through the years, Governor and later United States Senator Ford has been a friend, inspiration, mentor, and, for an abbreviated period, boss - twice. In 1980 I worked under the direction of a lady from Jeffersontown who was one of his campaign bosses - I can never remember her name but I can always remember those big '70s style glasses she wore, along with wigs that were never quite where they should be. She introduced me to "working a rolodex." She had quite a rolodex. Later, for a brief period in the mid 1980s, between one of those periods of unemployment at City Hall, I was offered a chance to work in the Senator's office in the District of Columbia. I made a visit, got cold feet, and returned to Louisville. It is one of the capital mistakes of my lifetime.
Over the years and especially since his retirement from elective office in 1998, Senator Ford has become one of the icons of Kentucky's political history, ranking up there at the top with Henry Clay, Alben Barkley, and, giving credit where it is due, Addison Mitchell McConnell, Jr., the only person serving longer than Ford as a United States Senator from Kentucky. He has been the hero of nearly every Democratic campaign, the one person Democratic candidates seek out above all others for an endorsement. He had most recently endorsed Jack Conway in his race to be one of his successors in the Governor's Office.
Yesterday and today, Wendell Ford became the twenty-first person to lie in state in our State Capitol, depending upon who is counting, who they are counting, and if they are counting all of our capitol buildings. And today was the official State Memorial ceremony marking the life and death of this beloved statesman and politician. It was beautifully delivered by Governor Steve Beshear, eulogist Thomas Preston, Lieutenant Governor Crit Luallen, cantor Colmon Elridge, and musicians from the Owensboro Orchestra. And that gets us back to that Methodist hymn, When we all get to heaven.
I have been enamored of our State Capitol and, indeed, our State Government since my very early visits with my grandmother as a little boy in the 1960s. I remember the first time I was a page around the age of 7 for then-State Representative Tommie Riddle of Okolona. I remember returning there when our neighbor at the end of the street, Dottie Priddy, was elected as a State Representative in 1969. And I have a great fondness in my heart and soul for the time I spent in Junior KYA and KYA while a student at Durrett from 7th through 12th grades, and later as an Adviser for Lexington's Morton Junior High School while I was student at UK. Then in 1980, with the help of Dottie Priddy, I got to go to work for the Legislative Research Commission, the official staff to Kentucky's General Assembly. I was, in my mind, working in heaven. I have never lost my passionate feeling for this wonderful body, working in a beautiful building, in what has been and remains one of my favorite cities on the planet.
Over all these years, I have come to know many, many people associated with that building. Governors, lieutenant governors, other statewide electeds, and a lot of the folks who helped to put all those people in office. Through involvement with the Kentucky Young Democrats (and thanks to Dale Emmons and others, the Young Democrats of America), I established friendships and relationships which have remained in tact over the decades. I see them at political events, BBQs, football and basketball games (mostly in Lexington), and other sundry places, some planned, some unplanned. Most of us gather the first Saturday in August for food and fun at Fancy Farm. There are other events where any number of these folks might show up - the Hillbilly Days in Pikeville, Court Days in Mount Sterling, St. John's Picnic in Paducah, or the old Guidiglis family picnic in northern Kentucky, something I have lost track of.
Today's gathering in memory of Governor Ford brought all those people together, a sort of "When we all get to heaven" occasion. There was plenty of rejoicing at seeing old and new friends and relaying and relating stories of the great man whose coffin was lying in state before the larger-than-life statue of Kentucky's president, Abraham Lincoln. We were all there. I saw former governors Carroll, Brown, Collins, and Patton. I saw three congressmen, Yarmuth, Rogers, and Guthrie - but only spoke to one - a nice chat with Congressman Guthrie about how the 2012 redistricting plan wasn't quite put into practice. We both laughed. I saw Mary Sue Helm, who now works for Secretary of State Grimes, but for me is someone I've known since 1979 when we both worked in the office of then-Jefferson County Clerk Bremer Ehrler. I saw Adrian Arnold, a former member of the House. We chatted briefly. Mr. Arnold came to the House in 1974, the same year as Steve Beshear. Wendell Ford was governor at the time. Later I stood behind James Kay, one of Kentucky's newest members of the House elected from Woodford County. I saw my councilman, Metro Council President David Tandy, along with my senator, Gerald Neal. I saw a number of my old Young Democrat friends, starting with Dale Emmons and Earl M. "Mickey" McGuire, who took me to my first YDA convention. I saw many of my fellow members of the Kentucky Democratic Party State Central Committee, a body I sought office to every fourth year from 1980 to 2000 before finally winning in 2004 (and being re-elected in one fashion or another in both 2008 and 2012). And while I didn't speak to him, the most powerful Republican in the Republic, and arguably the second most powerful man on the planet, the aforementioned Mitch McConnell was seated forty feet away, in a much more prominent place than mine. I did say hello to former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chou, wife of the senator. Both large city mayors were there although I only spoke with Lexington's. Many current and former statewide electeds were there, including Alison Grimes (and her father, with whom I had an extended conversation outside the Governor's Office), Todd Hollenbach (father and son), John Young Brown (father, son, and grandson), Bobby Babbage, Ben Chandler, and old John Stevenson was upstairs in a wheelchair. And the thing is, he touched all of these people and many more.
It was, in a word, heaven. That isn't meant sacrilegiously. I do believe in an afterlife which involves heaven. But today was close. It was quite a gathering. The state's powerful and less-than-powerful, all together in a place they presumably love. It is, I will note, the second such gathering of a place's powerful and less-than-powerful gathered together to pay respect to a deceased leader the likes of which we won't see again soon which I've attended in the last few days.
Rest In Peace, Senator Ford.
(picture by John Rogers of Glasgow, Ky.)
- Sing the wondrous love of Jesus,
Sing His mercy and His grace;
In the mansions bright and blessed
He’ll prepare for us a place.
- When we all get to heaven,
What a day of rejoicing that will be!
When we all see Jesus,
We’ll sing and shout the victory!
- When we all get to heaven,