The flag-draped casket sat on the altar at All Saints Episcopal Church, flanked by military guards, their faces blank. The public trickled in, voices hushed. Some people wore raincoats. Some wore suits. Some pushed strollers. Each waited for a turn to stand for a moment in front of Ted Stevens' casket.
Outside, Stevens' children and grandchildren mixed with the line of family friends, political acquaintances and mourners, hundreds of them. People traded stories about fishing trips, congressional appropriations, constituent letters, Senate votes and passing encounters.
Stevens wasn't your classic high-gloss politician. He was temperamental. He loved to spend money. He held grudges. But in line outside the church were the faces of the people who voted for him again and again, proof that his dog-eared brand of politics worked.
Standing on the sidewalk, I met Verona Gentry, a retired nurse-midwife, who told me about how Stevens' office once wrote to support her daughter's Naval Academy nomination, which was a shining moment for her. Another time, she ran into the senator in Girdwood and he interrupted his breakfast just to chat with her, a perfect stranger.
Greg Kimura, president of the Alaska Humanities Forum, told me about Stevens' support for the U.S. government's apology to Japanese Americans who had been sent to internment camps during World War II. Kimura's family was sent from Alaska to a camp in Idaho at that time.
"Many people in his party were not supportive of that," Kimura said. But Stevens supported it because he felt it was the right thing to do, he said.
Jamie Patterson-Simes came to the visitation with her mother, Carol Patterson, and her daughters, Graylin, 11, and Riley, 8. Patterson-Simes is a commercial pilot and flight instructor. She got some of her early training on a multimillion-dollar flight simulator that Stevens helped secure for the University of Alaska Anchorage, she said. Now she teaches in the aviation program. Her daughter Graylin is also learning to fly.
On the church steps, I caught up with Jack Roderick, who used to be Stevens' law partner years ago. He introduced me to Barbara Andrews-Mee, who was standing under a large umbrella in the rain.
Andrews-Mee had been Roderick and Stevens' secretary back at the old law practice. After that she managed Stevens' Alaska office for 35 years.
I asked Andrews-Mee how politics have changed since Stevens' early years. She told me that back then, Roderick had been the head of the Democratic Party and Stevens had been the head of the Republicans but they were dear friends. The political world wasn't so polarized. Political parties didn't mean the same thing, she said.
"For a while there, I think we were really able to vote for the man," she said. "It's difficult now."
I thought about that. The political poles of the country have only seemed to drift farther apart. More than one person in line mentioned Stevens' close personal friendship with Hawaii Sen. Dan Inouye, a Democrat. It was hard to imagine that kind of thing happening today.
About then, a man in a suit approached Andrews-Mee. He asked how she was doing.
"Oh, not too good," she said.
The man's eyes welled. I guessed he was a former Stevens staffer. Andrews-Mee watched him disappear into the church. She began to weep under her umbrella. I caught a glimpse of one of Stevens' sons, staring into the drizzle, looking tired. And for a moment it felt like it could be anybody's funeral.
Except the mourners were strangers, and they kept coming, lining up all the way out the door.