WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Leading congressional Democrats and some of the party’s presidential contenders gathered Sunday for the funeral of Emily Clyburn, wife of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina and prolific fundraiser in support of helping students attend the alma mater they shared.
“We all loved her so much,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during the three-hour funeral service in West Columbia. “She was not only a gentle lady. She was a strategic thinker.”
Pelosi and Georgia Congressman John Lewis were among about a dozen House members who attended services at Brookland Baptist Church for Emily Clyburn, who died last week at age 80 after a decades-long battle with diabetes.
Two Democratic presidential contenders, Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, also were present Sunday. Former Vice President Joe Biden planned to attend another service Monday in Charleston, and Pelosi said other members of Congress also would be on hand.
Married for nearly six decades, the Clyburns met as students at South Carolina State University. Rep. Clyburn has often told the story of how he met his future wife in jail after they were both arrested while protesting against segregation at an Orangeburg drug store counter, a tale recounted Sunday by Emily Clyburn’s college roommate.
Hungry, the congressman has said Emily Clyburn walked up to him with a hamburger. As he reached for it, she tore it, keeping half for herself.
“I tell everybody she got me for half a hamburger,” Jim Clyburn said.
They married just over a year later.
Emily Clyburn, a native of Moncks Corner, was known affectionately to many as “Ms. Emily.” She went on to become a public school librarian in Columbia and Charleston before spending nearly 30 years as a medical librarian at the Charleston Naval Base and Dorn VA Medical Center in Columbia.
Through the years, the couple raised millions of dollars for the endowment and need-based scholarships at their alma mater, from which Emily Clyburn received an honorary doctorate in 2010. A pedestrian bridge in Orangeburg linking S.C. State to student housing over a five-lane road bears her name.
“Ms. Emily will never be duplicated,” Columbia City Councilman Sam Davis said. “But she will be a model for humanitarians to come.”
Rep. Clyburn, 79, has often remarked on his wife’s steady influence on his political decision-making through the years, including the notion he once entertained of leaving Congress after Republicans took back the U.S. House following the 2010 elections due to a frustration at failing to get things accomplished.
Emily Clyburn talked him out of it — in part by joking she didn’t need him around the house all the time playing golf, but also telling him he had way too much left to accomplish.
“As always, she was right,” Clyburn said in 2015.
One by one, friends and colleagues offered their support to the Clyburn family, with many calling on Rep. Clyburn to turn to his faith in his time of loss.
“We pray for Congressman Clyburn,” said Rosalyn Glenn, a financial planner and former Democratic nominee for state treasurer, during an opening prayer. “Just like you gave her to him then, because you knew what he needed then, we’re going to thank you that you give him what he needs now.”
One of the final speakers, the couple’s eldest daughter, said her mother pushed all three of their girls to succeed, something she said she would take with her for the rest of her life.
“My mother, the most selfless person I have ever met, laid the foundation for me to be likewise,” said Mignon Clyburn, a former FCC commissioner. “She always put us first. … I’m going to apologize to her today, because I never thanked her enough.”