GREENVILLE, N.C. – Friends and colleagues of the late U.S. Rep. Walter Jones Jr. remembered him Thursday as a man of integrity and deep Christian conviction who fought for constituents and what he believed was right.
Hundreds of people, including Gov. Roy Cooper and current and former members of Congress, attended the funeral Mass for Jones at a Catholic church in Greenville. The 3rd Congressional District representative died Sunday on his 76th birthday.
Like his father before him, Jones served for more than 20 years on Capitol Hill representing eastern North Carolina. He was a fiscal and social conservative who initially supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He later reversed course, becoming a leading critic of military action there and incurring disfavor from fellow Republicans.
The Very Rev. Justin Kerber, who was the church's pastor until 2013, said Jones had shared his anguish over the Iraq war with him.
"He said, 'Father, I want to do what God wants me to do. Pray with me that I'll always have the courage to do what is right,'" Kerber said during the sermon, adding later that "I always looked on him as a man of absolute integrity. Whether you agreed with him or not, he was faithful."
Jones' opposition to the war came after he was among the House members who led a campaign when the French opposed U.S. military action that resulted in the chamber's cafeteria offering "freedom fries" and "freedom toast" — instead of French fries and French toast.
Beginning in 2003, Jones sent personally signed letters to the families of thousands of servicemen and women killed in action. He called it penance for voting yes for the Iraq war in 2002.
Connie Gruber of Jacksonville told the crowd that Jones never stopped working to absolve her late Marine Corps husband of wrongdoing for an Osprey crash in April 2000 that killed him, another pilot and 17 other service members. She said Jones fought for 14 years until a Defense Department official released a letter in 2016 citing causes for the crash that cleared both Maj. Brooks Gruber and Lt. Col. John Brow, the other pilot.
"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, who had served in Congress since 1995, had already announced his 2018 campaign would be his last. He entered hospice care in January after breaking his hip. He had been granted a leave of absence from Congress in late 2018 and was sworn in for his last term back home.
Jones previously served in the legislature for a decade as a Democrat. Cooper got to know him there when the future governor joined the House in the late 1980s. Cooper, a Democrat, said even then Jones caused "bipartisan angst among political party leaders because of that fierce independence."
"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," Cooper said.