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Hundreds turn out for viewing of Murtha in W.Pa.

Joe Mandak

Hundreds of mourners braved light snow and bitter cold Sunday before slowly filing past the casket of late congressman John Murtha at a funeral home less than a mile from where he lived.

The mourners ranged from Gov. Ed Rendell to average citizens, especially veterans, who revered Murtha, a powerful Democrat who headed the House appropriations defense subcommittee.

Rendell said Murtha's death Feb. 8 at age 77 after complications from gallbladder surgery cost him a plainspoken friend and cost Pennsylvania "the best ally we ever had" in Washington.

Murtha's influence on Pennsylvania, and especially his ability to bring defense spending and jobs to the state following the steel industry meltdown of the 1970s and early '80s, was felt well beyond his 12th District, composed of parts of nine western counties, Rendell said.

"He was our go-to guy," Rendell said.

Rendell, who said that as mayor of Philadelphia he called upon Murtha for help, credited Murtha with saving the Philadelphia shipyard industry.

"Nobody is irreplaceable in the long run," Rendell said. "But he is as close to it as anybody I've seen."

Murtha's wife, Joyce Murtha, touted as a possible replacement for her husband, greeted mourners who had lined up outside the simple white-frame funeral home. His adult children and three grandchildren also greeted mourners.

Shuttle buses brought groups of mourners from a nearby parking area.

"When you met him on the streets of Johnstown he would not talk at you, he would talk to you," said Michael Holub, a retired Army sergeant major from Johnstown, Murtha's hometown.

The mood inside and outside the funeral home was subdued but not somber. Most people remembered Murtha with stories of his good cheer as a public servant or humorous anecdotes. High-powered dignitaries were few and far between but included lobbyist Tony Podesta, Democratic state Sen. John Wozniak and Democratic Ohio U.S. Reps. Zach Space and Charlie Wilson.

Wozniak has been touted as a possible candidate to replace Murtha but said outside the funeral home, "That statement we'll be making after I bury my friend."

Before that, Wozniak credited Murtha with "diversification of the economy" in his district, which had very high unemployment in the 1980s. Besides defense contractors, boosted by contracts Murtha helped them land with the government, the region now boasts several high-tech and other industries, Wozniak said.

Murtha spokesman Matthew Mazonkey said 15 members from Pennsylvania's congressional delegation will act as honorary pall bearers at Murtha's funeral Tuesday. At least 30 Congress members, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will attend the funeral.

Sunday's viewing was a simpler affair. Murtha's casket was decorated with a spray of his favorite flowers, blue delphiniums, which he was known to grow in his garden.

Flags from the United States and Pennsylvania were at either side of the casket, and a folded American flag — to be draped over his casket and given to his widow at the funeral — was the only object placed beside him.

Dorothy Helsel had worked on Murtha's campaigns since he became the first Vietnam veteran in Congress in 1974. She remembered Murtha when he owned a car wash in Johnstown and her husband was its first customer.

"He's a people person," she said. "He loves us, the people of his territory."

The Associated Press