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Murtha remembered as friend of veterans

Congressman John Murtha was remembered at his funeral Tuesday as a patriot, a fighter for his constituents and for veterans, a consummate politician and a family man able to separate work from his personal life.
John Murtha
The flag draped casket of U.S. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., is carried up the front steps of Westmont Presbyterian Church in Johnstown, Pa., on Tuesday.Carolyn Kaster / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Congressman John Murtha was remembered at his funeral Tuesday as a patriot, a fighter for his constituents and for veterans, a consummate politician and a family man able to separate work from his personal life.

His daughter, Donna Murtha, addressing an audience of 400 including former President Bill Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and most of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation, said that while they knew him as a politician, she knew another side.

"I know him as Dad and my buddy and my pal," she said, fighting back tears. They didn't talk politics or economics; instead, he asked about the children she taught.

Her father was the powerful head of the House appropriations defense subcommittee who died Feb. 8 at age 77 after complications from gallbladder surgery. He also loved Sherlock Holmes and mysteries, loved to watch deer and goldfinches in his yard and tried to outwit the squirrels who eyed the bird feeders, she said.

"He lived by the motto 'One man makes a difference.' We love you, Dad," said his daughter, who spoke on behalf of her mother, Joyce, and two brothers.

Pelosi; Gen. James Conway, the Marine Corps commandant; and the Rev. William George, president of Georgetown Preparatory School, all spoke of Murtha's power.

George read from the Book of Ecclesiastes, about times to laugh and mourn. He later said that were the book to be written now, "The writer of Ecclesiastes could also have written 'a time to make law and a time to change laws. And, yes, a time to earmark.'"

The quip drew laughter from the pews of the Westmont Presbyterian Church: Murtha was known for his ability to help bring federal money and projects to his sprawling western Pennsylvania district, which was depressed by the decline of the coal and steel industries.

Conway recalled first meeting Murtha in 2006. Murtha, the first Vietnam veteran to serve in Congress, told him, "You can't have everything, but tell me the two or three things you need and I'll get it."

Conway said he figured having a fellow Marine in such a powerful position was a good thing — only to learn Murtha said something similar to the heads of the other military branches.

Pelosi said Murtha had pride in the institution of Congress instilled in him by his mentor, the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill.

"To watch Jack Murtha legislate was to see a master at work," she said. "But more indicative of his character was to watch him communicate with our men and women in uniform," she said.

And when he spoke in opposition to the Iraq war, "He taught us all to make a distinction between the war and the warrior," she said.

Impact on home district
Ernest Walker, a Johnstown lawyer who served in the Marine Corps Reserves with Murtha, attended the funeral and praised Murtha for nurturing a strong defense industry in Johnstown.

"We have a work ethic here that's great, he said. "They produce good weapons for the military and hopefully, that will sustain.

"That will really be Jack's legacy."

Also at the funeral was former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, who is among several people who have expressed interest in running for the seat Murtha had held since 1974. Former Pennsylvania treasurer and auditor general Barbara Hafer said Monday she would enter the race but would change her mind if Joyce Murtha were to run.

Murtha's tenure was not without critics or controversy.

He defended earmarks, saying the money benefited constituents. And during a corruption probe, the FBI caught him on videotape in a 1980 sting operation turning down a $50,000 bribe offer while holding out the possibility that he might take money in the future.

Six congressmen and one senator were convicted in that case. Murtha was not charged, but the government named him as an unindicted coconspirator and he testified against two congressmen.

Jessica Jeffreys, a waitress Our Son's Family Restaurant, watched the funeral on television before going to work and said she couldn't recall a time without Murtha. She said her father was also a Vietnam veteran.

"Murtha helped him as Murtha helped all the veterans everywhere. He helped everybody," she said.