WASHINGTON — The memorial service for former Sen. Harris Wofford really could have taken place anywhere.
The nation’s capital, where he had resided before his death in January, isn’t at a loss for grand venues.
But instead of choosing a site on the National Mall, organizers arranged for his final goodbye to be at Howard University, the historically black college from which he was one of the first whites to graduate with a law degree.
It was a touching and also a fitting choice for the former Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, who spent much of his considerable career championing civil rights for African Americans.
If attendees forgot for even a moment where they were, the Howard University choir reminded them with musical selections, including the civil rights anthem “Oh Freedom.”
… And before I’d be a slave
I’d be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free. ...
Saturday’s memorial service, at the school’s main auditorium, was a chance to reflect and also to be inspired because Wofford, during his 92 years, utterly personified the words a life well-lived. I had the pleasure of interviewing him once by telephone, and it was one of the most engaging conversations I’ve had with a total stranger.
An adviser to Presidents John Kennedy and Bill Clinton, Wofford also was an early supporter of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther Jr. and joined King on the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. He died on this year’s celebration of the King holiday, which he had helped to create.
“He brought Gandhi and nonviolence to Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement," Gov. Tom Wolf noted from the podium. “He convinced JFK of the need to take civil rights seriously, including his famous call to Coretta Scott King." (When King was arrested for participating in an Atlanta sit-in, Wofford advised Kennedy to call her and offer his sympathy.)
“He helped Sargent Shriver found the Peace Corps," Wolf continued. “He was a college president — twice. He served in Gov. Robert Casey’s cabinet. He was a U.S. senator. In all of these things, he made our world a much, much better world.”
In his remarks, Sen. Bob Casey recalled how Wofford had stood faithfully by his dad, despite repeated political losses.
After Bob Casey Sr. finally won, becoming Pennsylvania’s governor in 1986, he appointed Wofford to chair the Pennsylvania Democratic Party and later to lead the Department of Labor & Industry.
After Sen. John Heinz’s tragic 1991 death in an aviation accident, Gov. Casey appointed Wofford to fill the seat. Sen. Casey said his father thought of Wofford as an “American hero.”
The most dramatic moment of the service came when Wofford’s husband, Matthew Charlton, took the stage. The auditorium got really still. I think many in the crowd were curious about the man who had been Wofford’s companion for the last 18 years.
“The beauty of his mind-set always was his belief in the good of others," Charlton said. "The color of your skin, social status, or your political party were irrelevant. If you were standing in front of Harris, you were important to him.”
Previously, Wofford had been married to a woman, Clare, for 48 years. They had three children. Clare died in 1996 when he was almost 70.
Shortly before his marriage to Charlton in 2016, Wofford wrote a New York Times column announcing his joy at having fallen in love with a man 50 years his junior. He also pointed out that he didn’t consider himself gay, nor did he categorize himself based on the gender of those he loves.