LEXINGTON, Mo. (AP) — Former longtime Missouri congressman Ike Skelton was remembered Monday as one of the military's "most trusted civilians" and one of the nation's most civil statesmen as hundreds gathered to mourn his death.
The crowd at Skelton's funeral in his rural Missouri hometown included numerous military leaders and elected officials from both Missouri and Washington, highlighting the mark he left both on the nation's Armed Forces and the people he represented.
Skelton died a week ago of complications from pneumonia. He was 81.
Skelton, who was chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, served in the U.S. House for 34 years before losing re-election in 2010. He built a reputation as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat, an astute military historian and a staunch advocate of the Armed Forces.
"He inarguably became one of the most trusted civilians by the military in this country," said Missouri congressman Emanuel Cleaver, a Methodist pastor from Kansas City, who delivered the remarks at Skelton's funeral.
Yet Skelton remained humble, personable and approachable even as he gained in political power and Congress became increasingly polarized, Cleaver said.
"He was one of the last statesmen of Congress — Ike wrote the book on civility and political decorum," Cleaver said.
Growing up during World War II, Skelton longed to serve in the Army. But he was stricken by polio at age 14 and permanently lost the use of his left arm.
He instead followed his father's path by becoming an attorney, then entered politics. Skelton served as a local prosecutor and Missouri state senator before winning election to the U.S. House in 1976. He never lost an election until 2010, when Republican Vicky Hartzler unseated him.
Skelton's funeral was held in the gymnasium of Wentworth Military Academy and College, where he earned an associate's degree — and ran on the track team— after recovering from polio. The stage displayed flags from all branches of the military alongside the U.S. and Missouri flags. His casket, draped in a U.S. flag, was escorted into and out of the ceremony by the academy's honor guard.
In the audience were high-ranking officers from the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and National Guard. Gov. Jay Nixon, who led a delegation of Missouri officials, ordered flags at half-staff in honor of Skelton.
"Isaac 'Ike' Newtown Skelton IV was a warrior," said the Rev. Everett Hannon Jr., who served as a pastor at the Second Baptist Church in Lexington where Skelton attended. "He may not have been in a foxhole or dropped a bomb from a B-12 aircraft, but he made a way out of no way for many soldiers."
During what amounted to a political farewell speech after his 2010 loss, Skelton told those gathered an ROTC breakfast in Jefferson City that serving as the House Armed Services Committee chairman "has been the greatest honor of my public life."
Skelton helped lead efforts to increase the size and readiness of the Armed Forces and took pride in fighting for better training, staffing, equipment, housing, salary and benefits for military members.
After redistricting made Skelton the representative for Fort Leonard Wood in 1983, the number of troops undergoing training there more than quadrupled and the post's mission expanded from the Army to all branches of military service. He also secured the future of Whiteman Air Force Base as it was losing its cache of long-range nuclear missiles in the late 1980s, by getting the Defense Department to place the new B-2 bomber there.
A B-2 bomber flew over Skelton's gravesite Monday as his family gathered for a private ceremony after the public funeral.
"He was probably the most prominent person in the military — even though he never served," Mike Lierman, the president of the Wentworth Military Academy, said in an interview at Skelton's funeral. "He fought for all those things the military needed."
Cleaver, who testified about Skelton's Christian faith, said his good friend and colleague seldom complained or got cross with people and always took the time to stop and chat — whether in the halls of Congress or his hometown.
"Ike chose to be smaller in his daily presentation as his congressional stature grew taller," Cleaver said.