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Mourners recall Jones' integrity and love of others during funeral

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A group of U.S. Marines carry the casket of Congressman Walter B. Jones Jr. out of St. Peter Catholic Church on Thursday afternoon. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Tyler Stocks
The Daily Reflector

Thursday, February 14, 2019

He was a devoted husband and father who wanted to be remembered for his integrity and love of God and the Catholic Church.

He also was the voice for veterans, farmers, fisherman, businessmen and everyone in between. And when he went off to Washington, he was not afraid to go against his own political party if it meant doing the right thing.

These tributes and others were shared as friends and colleagues of the late U.S. Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. gathered in Greenville to honor him on Thursday afternoon.

Hundreds of people, including Gov. Roy Cooper and current and former members of Congress, attended the funeral Mass for Jones at St. Peter Catholic Church. The 3rd Congressional District representative died on Sunday on his 76th birthday.  

Nearer My God to Thee reverberated through organ pipes as pallbearers guided the flag-draped casket down the aisle of the sanctuary.

A Republican from the Pitt County town of Farmville, Jones had been re-elected to his 13th term in November and had announced he would retire at the end of the term. He became ill before the new session began, however, and was excused on Dec. 11.

During his homily, the Very Rev. Justin Kerber recalled Jones integrity and how he loved others and tended to the “least of these” 

“A congressman for 25 years, husband for 53 years, a loving father, a devout Christian his entire life, Walter loved very well,” Kerber said.

Kerber, who was pastor of St. Peter until 2013, highlighted how Jones listened and made time for everyone who needed him. 

“Sometimes (a) parishioner needed to speak with him,” Kerber said. “He would wait; he would be concerned about their concerns.”

It was Jones’ humility and love of God that allowed them to build for a great friendship, Kerber said, noting that Jones had shared his anguish over the Iraq war with him.

“I particularly remember a phone call when he said he had to split with the administration over an important vote that was coming up on the war. He said, ‘Father, I want to do what God wants me to do. Pray me with me that I’ll always have the courage to do what’s right,’” Kerber said.  

In addition to listening to those in his church community, Jones also cared for the families of U.S. armed service members who lost loved ones. 

Connie Gruber was among the individuals who eulogized Jones.

The congressman and his staff worked 14 years to clear the name of her husband, U.S. Marine Corps Major Brooks Gruber, and Lt. Col. John Brow. The two men were piloting a V-22 Osprey that crashed in the Arizona desert on April 8, 2000, killing themselves and 17 others.

The Marine Corps initially said the pilots’ actions were the “primary fatal factor” in the crash. Connie Gruber and Brow’s widow reached out to Jones to help them correct the record. He made telephone calls, fought to have documents released and made more than 100 speeches from the floor of the House of Representatives.

Eventually, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work released a statement that cleared the pilots.

“I respectfully think of him as the real deal,” Connie Gruber said. “A nice person, a southern gentleman, a Godly man who showed grit, honor, courage and commitment and integrity. ... He was a great leader … a relentless warrior for truth and justice, absolutely the most genuine, dedicated public servant that I have ever known. The kind of person we should all strive to be.

“In addition to my late husband, Congressman Jones became the other hero in my life, for the honor he worked so diligently to restore,” Gruber said.

Jones also made it a point to write letters to military family who had lost a service member, sharing in their grief.

“Walter cared for all the people that God placed in his life,” Kerber said. “He respected especially the military and had great reverence and love for the men and women who sacrificed so much.”

Special guests at Jones’ funeral included a congressional delegation of 30 including U.S. Sen. Richard Burr and U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfield, whose 1st Congressional District was paired with district in many eastern North Carolina counties. 

“Today’s service was a fitting tribute that highlighted Walter Jones’ lifelong service and his commitment to political independence,” Butterfield said. “May our friend rest in peace.”

Cooper also spoke of his former colleague and friend. They served together in the North Carolina General Assembly.  

“Walter was a man of strong convictions, deep faith and immense love for the people of eastern North Carolina,” Cooper said. “We met and we became friends during our time serving together and I got a little close with Walter. I got to know him as a person who told you what he believed and who kept his word.

“He was independent in his thinking and often cause bipartisan angst among political party leaders because of that independence,” Cooper said. “He didn’t toe any political line but his own, doing what he thought was right for the people of North Carolina, for our state and for our country.”

Others spoke about how Jones had profoundly influenced their lives. 

Greenville Attorney Ken Haigler, who also was a good friend of Jones, recalled a recent visit with the congressman. 

“Three weeks ago at about this same time, I had one of those truly special moments in life,” Haigler said.  “I got to spend virtually the entire day with my brother in Christ, Walter Jones. He was having a really good day that day. He told me that day that his time here was done. That was a special moment.”

Jones’ former Legislative Director Joshua Bowlen lauded the congressman for his courage and gentle spirit.

“For the past 16 years, I have been incredibly blessed to have the privilege to be working with Congressman Walter B. Jones,” Bowlen said. “From the first day I walked into his office, he embraced me like I was a member of his own family. Over time, he became a second father to me.”

“Congressman Jones had the strength and character to gracefully persist the tide and stay true to principles,” Bowlen said. “He did so in the face of immense costs to him personally and professionally. In the end, he was almost always proven right. God had put him in a position to stand up for those who needed a voice.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Contact Tyler Stocks at tstocks@reflector.com or 252-329-9566.  

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