Clinton leads last farewell to Brown Commerce chief's funeral is filled with spirit of life well-lived

April 11, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Ronald H. Brown was eulogized yesterday in an overflowing National Cathedral, given a last ride in a black limousine through the city he loved and then placed in his grave to the sounds of a 19-gun military salute and the sight of family and friends decorating his casket with fragile white lilies.

"He's in a place he deserves to be, because of the way he lived and what he left to those of us who loved him," President Clinton told about 4,500 mourners at a church service that mixed solemnity and humor. "Let there always be joy in the morning for Ron Brown."

Mr. Brown and 34 other people were killed a week ago, when their plane crashed into a foggy mountain in Croatia while on a mission to rebuild the former Yugoslavia and help American business in the process.

The trip symbolized the life of the 54-year-old Mr. Brown, the president said of his commerce secretary, a man who "proved you could do well and do good."

"He also proved you could do good and have a good time," the president said. "And he also proved that you could do all that and, at the same time, still take time to help other people."

In attendance were Mr. Clinton; his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton; their daughter, Chelsea; Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper; the Clinton Cabinet; hundreds of Commerce Department and other administration officials; and Democratic loyalists who knew Mr. Brown as party chief.

Also present were many of the nation's most prominent African-Americans, including retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, former Urban League President Vernon Jordan, singer and songwriter Stevie Wonder, former New York Mayor David N. Dinkins and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Many in the audience murmured appreciatively when the president made a point of thanking Mr. Brown for the role he had played in unifying the Democratic Party in 1992 and paving the way for Mr. Clinton's election.

"To my friend, just one last time, thank you," Mr. Clinton said. "If it weren't for you, I wouldn't be here."

The redemptive tone of the service was set by an anthem called "My Tribute," sung by Mr. Jackson's daughter, Santita Jackson. "Just let me live my life, and let it be pleasing to Thee," she sang. "If I should gain any praise, let it go to Calvary."

Later in the service, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis filled the church with the sweet but sad notes of a traditional New Orleans funeral song, "Flee the Bird to the Mountain." The Howard University choir delivered a haunting rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Alexis Herman, a White House aide close to Mr. Brown, read from the book of Matthew, ending with a passage in which Jesus tells a crowd: "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid."

As she finished, Ms. Herman turned away from the lectern, sobbing; a minister walked her down the aisle to Mr. Brown's son, Michael, as she collapsed in his arms.

The service was not without its lighter moments, and some of them came when it was Michael Brown's turn to speak.

The younger Mr. Brown was a confidant, friend and business partner of his father; one deal they entered into was being probed by a special prosecutor at the time of the Commerce secretary's death.

When Michael Brown took the pulpit, he thanked the rescue team that trekked up a steep mountain during a rainstorm to find his father's body. And he asked for a moment of silence for the other victims of the crash.

But then Michael Brown injected a note of levity, quipping that those who said his father always showed grace under fire "never played golf with him."

Michael Brown told the crowd what most already knew -- that father and son spoke together constantly, traveled together and openly displayed affection for each other.

They often gabbed on the telephone late at night about matters important and not so important. He offered an example: The time they talked while "watching wild animals do things to each other" on the Discovery Channel.

"You know, Dad, I'm going to miss you," Michael Brown said. "And a lot of other people are going to miss you, too."

The younger Mr. Brown also paid tribute to his mother, Alma, telling the congregation that she was the guiding force in Ron Brown's life and adding, in a poignant aside: "Mommy, you are now my role model. And I love you very much."

The president also brought a smile to Mr. Brown's widow when he alluded good-naturedly in his remarks to Ron Brown's love of pomp and ceremony -- and fine clothes.

"He would have loved this deal today," Mr. Clinton said. "Full military honors, all of us dressed almost as well as he would be."

The body of Mr. Brown, born in Washington and raised in Harlem, was driven through some of the capital city neighborhoods he loved the most. A former Army captain, he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

There, a somber Mr. Clinton took the American flag that had been folded by the military guard and presented it to Mrs. Brown, along with a hug and some whispered words of solace.

Pub Date: 4/11/96

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