Posted: June 28, 2009
A LAST PARADE FOR THURMAN ADAMS
By Celia Cohen
There was not much surprise, if any, at seeing the Vice President of the United States at the funeral Saturday for Thurman Adams.
This is Delaware, and Joe Biden belonged here to eulogize the state Senate's Democratic president pro tem who was the pride of Bridgeville and the majordomo of Sussex County.
What was a surprise was what accompanied Biden. Namely, nothing.
No magnetic screeners or tight white security tents to blemish this small, country town. No menacing German shepherds in sight. No snipers on the rooftops. No restricted movements. Not even a purse searched.
True, there was an impressive contingent of Secret Service agents, state troopers and local law enforcement, but they were woven into the pageantry of the day and did not so much as tell people to keep off the grass.
This was Bridgeville triumphant, maybe the first sane moment in a post-Sept. 11 world.
It led to one of the most achingly elegiac sights there ever was in Delaware, a funeral procession on a summer day with the noontime sun shining down like a benediction.
Adams' casket, shrouded with the state flag, was wheeled atop a platform by pallbearers on foot. They traveled a short distance along Laws Street from Woodbridge High School, where the funeral was, past the Union United Methodist Church, where he worshipped, to the Bridgeville Cemetery, where he was buried.
Bagpipers and drummers from the state police came first, silent during the march but for a stately cadence from the drums, on their way to piping out Adams at his gravesite with "Amazing Grace."
The casket was followed by family members and Joe and Jill Biden, in the vanguard of a moving throng of most of the mourners from the memorial service. Tom Carper and Ted Kaufman, the Democratic senators. Mike Castle, the Republican congressman. Jack Markell and Matt Denn, the Democratic governor and lieutenant governor.
New Orleans may own the reputation for funeral processions, but on this day, New Orleans could eat its heart out.
There were 500 or 600 people at the funeral, a collection of Delaware's political elite joining Adams' relatives and friends, four days after he died at 80 from pancreatic cancer.
Their number included former Democratic Gov. Ruth Ann Minner and former Lt. Gov. John Carney, statewide officials, almost every state senator, Democratic Speaker Bob Gilligan and other state representatives, and several judges such as Chancellor Bill Chandler and Supreme Court Justice Hank Ridgely, both among Adams' favorites even if they were Republicans.
Richard Cordrey and Tom Sharp, Democratic ex-senators who also served as president pro tem, attended, as did Myrna Bair and Charlie Copeland, both former Republican minority leaders.
The turnout showed how much Adams' reach exceeded his grasp. He was a conservative from the old school of power-holding legislators, and people who had no political reason to be fond of him were, anyway, because of his manly ways.
One was Frances West, who was his polar opposite as a good-government Republican from Brandywine Hundred, but they became friends in the late 1960s and early 1970s when they served on the Highway Commission. It was in charge of the state roads and state police, before Delaware switched to a Cabinet form of government from a commission system, the basis for a lifelong connection between Adams and the troopers.
Another, if truth be told, was Joe Biden. The two formed a bond in spite of their backgrounds in 1972, when Adams was making his first run for the state Senate and Biden, then a New Castle County councilman, was doing the same for the U.S. Senate and paid a visit to Adams.
"At that time I was Joe-who? Now I'm Joe-what?" Biden said during his eulogy, evoking a ripple of low-key laughter.
"He took a risk on me, and it was a risk. I was a 29-year-old, Irish-Catholic kid who was a public defender from Claymont, Delaware."
The friendship deepened as they shared tragedies, Biden burying a young wife and baby daughter and Adams a grown son and wife of 50 years. Their public touchstone, however, remained the 1972 campaign. They liked to remind each other they were elected senators together.
Adams outlasted Biden as a senator, but Biden had more time in public office because of his two years as a county councilman. (Historians can consult with political scientists to decide whether Biden's time as vice president should count toward his longevity as a Delaware elected official.)
Adams at his death was the longest-serving state senator in Delaware history. The next in seniority is Nancy Cook, a Democrat who arrived after a special election in 1974 during Adams' first term. Adams also was tied as the longest-serving legislator with Gilligan, the speaker, first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1972.
Not much else is left from that vintage. Only one other current officeholder goes that far back. It is Castle, who was a state senator in 1972. He spent 10 years in the legislature from 1966 to 1976, took a break, and returned in 1980 for a run as lieutenant governor, governor and congressman.
All of them -- Biden, Castle, Gilligan and Cook -- came together at Adams' final march, as part of a special time for Delaware because of a special man.