NEW YORK - In a moving ceremony that was also filled with laughter, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg's family and colleagues recalled him Wednesday as a feisty and determined man whose life story shaped his work - and also described a personal side rarely seen in public.
Lautenberg's funeral on the Upper East Side drew 41 senators, six members of Congress, Gov. Christie, and former Govs. Jon S. Corzine, Jim McGreevey, and James J. Florio. Vice President Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez delivered eulogies.
The Park Avenue Synagogue, which Lautenberg's wife attends and which holds 1,100 people, was full.
Biden said the senator "desperately" wanted to run for reelection as recently as last winter but chose not to because of his failing health. Family members said that even in his final weeks of life, he talked about rescinding his plans to retire and trying for a sixth term.
"He never quit anything," Biden said, his voice dropping to a near-whisper. "He never gave up, never gave in."
Biden, a longtime Senate colleague of Lautenberg's, concluded: "He was a man. He was a real man."
Colleagues recalled how Lautenberg, a Democrat, rose from modest roots to earn wealth and a prestigious office, and built a legislative legacy that includes a national drinking age of 21, a smoking ban on domestic airline flights, and tougher environmental regulations.
Lautenberg's family gave touching glimpses of the senator's personality, describing how he loved hot dogs and skiing; how he used to speak to his children in a fake German accent, and how he could be just as combative and stubborn at home as he was in public.
Several spoke about his fumbling but charming attempts to impress strangers with his limited foreign language skills, even if, according to one stepdaughter, the only Italian he knew was the phrase for "no garlic." They praised him as a leader and role model, while lovingly recalling how he told the same jokes and stories all the time.
Bonnie Englebardt Lautenberg, the senator's wife of nine years after 16 years of dating, described being married to Lautenberg as "difficult, interesting, challenging, loving, amazing."
"Had he been well, he would have put up a good fight to stay in the Senate," she said in the speech concluding the service. But, she later said, "it was a blessing for all of us when he was finally at peace."
She finished with the words, "Rest in peace, my love, I will miss you always. And thank you for the most beautiful memories and an extraordinary life."
As the flag-covered casket was carried out of the synagogue, a quintet played "America the Beautiful." Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) reached out and touched the casket.
Lautenberg, who had been ill for months, died Monday morning of viral pneumonia. He was 89, the Senate's oldest member and its last World War II veteran. Over two stints in office, he represented New Jersey for nearly 30 years and gained a reputation as a fierce liberal who relished bruising public clashes - earning him the nickname "swamp dog." But Clinton, a former New York senator, recalled a lighter side she saw in many long voting sessions spent talking with Lautenberg.
"Frank always had something to say. It was usually a running commentary," Clinton said. "You just couldn't help but have a smile on your face at least one time during the conversation."
While many in the audience wiped away tears at times, much of the roughly 21/2-hour ceremony was filled with outbursts of laughter, usually prompted by anecdotes from Lautenberg's children.
Daughter Lisa Lautenberg Birer, whose speech was read by her own daughter because her voice was hoarse, ran down a list of statistical memories from Lautenberg's time in office. Among them: 300 new friends she lost in college when Lautenberg forced through a new national drinking age.
Josh Lautenberg said his father "thrived on being a pest at times," including as a backseat driver. He later said the senator was his family's "compass." "He always knew the way, even if it was the longest way," he said.
Danielle Englebardt, one of two stepdaughters, said that she and Lautenberg initially "hated each other" and that she clashed with the senator, who "was never wrong."
"In private life, he fought sometimes just because he felt like fighting," Englebardt said.
But she cried as she described how she and Lautenberg grew close over time. "We would still fight . . . but fights would end with a smile and one of us saying, 'You're wrong, but I still love you.' "
Speaker after speaker recalled how Lautenberg's modest roots in working-class Paterson and the life-changing Columbia University education he received through the GI Bill fueled his belief in an active government that could help people advance in life, much as he did.
"Most of all, Frank had the courage of his convictions, and he acted on those convictions," Biden said.
He also talked about their mutual love of Amtrak. Well known for his own rail use, Biden told one story about racing through Union Station in Washington, desperate to catch a train, only to have a conductor tell him not to worry: "We're holding it for Lautenberg." Biden feigned outrage that he was never given such consideration.
The audience was filled with political elite from New Jersey and Washington, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.).
Also in the audience were Newark Mayor Cory Booker and U.S. Reps. Rush Holt and Frank Pallone, who are all mulling runs to replace Lautenberg.
At the end of the ceremony, Lautenberg's casket was taken to the Frank R. Lautenberg Secaucus Rail Station. Family and dignitaries gathered there as police played "Taps" and "God Bless America" on bagpipes.
Police led a procession to Track 3, where Lautenberg's casket was loaded onto an Acela Express to Washington.
On Thursday, Lautenberg's body will lie in state on the Senate floor. On Friday, Lautenberg will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.