By Mike Baker/The Associated Press
RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — With stories that spanned decades and spectrums, family and friends of Elizabeth Edwards recalled her Saturday as an idealistic law student who challenged professors, a political sage who offered advice at every turn and a matriarch who comforted her family even as she was dying of breast cancer.
Edwards’ funeral drew hundreds to Edenton Street United Methodist Church, where she once mourned her 16-year-old son, Wade, after he died in a car crash in 1996. She was to be buried next to him during a private ceremony.
Speakers reflected on a multi-faceted personality: Edwards, 61, was an intellectual who frequented discount clothing stores like T.J. Maxx, she was a fiery competitor without an ego, and she was a public figure who won the private confidence of virtually everyone she met.
“There aren’t words that are good enough,” said daughter Cate Edwards, whose eulogy contained a passage from a letter her mother spent years preparing to leave to her children after she was gone.
“I’ve loved you in the best ways I’ve known how,” the letter said. “All I ever really needed was you, your love, your presence, to make my life complete.”
John Edwards, her estranged husband, did not speak. The couple had four children together. John Edwards sat alongside 28-year-old Cate, 12-year-old Emma Claire and 10-year-old Jack. They held hands as they followed the casket into the sanctuary.
Their oldest daughter talked of how her mother comforted those around her as she lay dying — at one point barely able to speak — while she held her daughter and John’s hands, looking back and forth to each, repeating, “I’m OK. I’m OK.”
“She was way more worried about us than we were about her,” Cate Edwards said.
She talked of her mother’s strength and grace and also of her witty advice about everything from clothing (there are always fewer regrets wearing solids than patterns) to marriage (don’t settle for the first boy you ever meet).
“She’s been a lighthouse to all of us — a point of guidance when we all feel lost,” she said.
The memorial brought several political figures, including Sen. John Kerry, who led the Democratic presidential ticket in 2004 that included John Edwards, and North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue.
Two of Elizabeth Edwards’ longtime friends, Hargrave McElroy and Glenn Bergenfield, also gave eulogies.
McElroy spoke admiringly of the fiery woman who first became a close friend as the couple raised their young children, telling stories of Edwards’ expertise at any pursuit that required intellect — from board games to sports trivia. She said Edwards was always an optimist.
“She knew who she was. She never held back. She was without pretense,” McElroy said.
Bergenfield described a woman he first met in law school who challenged her professors with a vibrant mind and who possessed “big world, head-turning, walk-into-the-pole gorgeous” looks. He related anecdotes about how strong she was, but also how she was down-to-earth she was, seeming to care for each stranger she met, disarming campaign operatives with plain language or crawling under a dormroom bed to find clothing Cate had discarded.
“Nothing that she said publicly, as a mother, as an author or as a friend — none of it fed or was in any way fueled by ego,” he said.
Bergenfield described Edwards as a close friend to him and his family — giving his children thoughtful advice and teaching people around her to “live like it’s important.”
One of the pallbearers, Tyler Highsmith, was in the car Wade Edwards was driving when he died. He and three other pallbearers — Michael Lewis, Ellis Roberts and Charles Scarantino — were pallbearers in Wade Edwards’ funeral. Trevor Upham, who was recently engaged to Cate Edwards, also served as a pallbearer for Elizabeth Edwards.
Jennifer Palmieri, who was a senior adviser during John Edwards’ presidential campaigns, said the funeral was open to the public because Elizabeth Edwards always insisted on open campaign events — much to the consternation of staff who wanted to control access. She never wanted tickets issued, even free ones.
Among the people who gathered on a nearby street hours before the funeral was Barbara Fields, a 65-year-old Raleigh resident who never knew Edwards personally but was impressed by how she handled adversity.
Fields, a 10-year breast cancer survivor who wore a pink scarf with breast cancer logos, said she found comfort in books and speeches by Edwards about the fear and sleepless nights that come with fighting the illness.
“She just carried herself with a quiet dignity,” Fields said.
Elizabeth Edwards was first diagnosed with cancer in 2004, a day after the Kerry-Edwards ticket lost to George W. Bush in that year’s presidential election. Doctors declared her cancer-free after grueling treatments, but the disease returned in an incurable form in 2007. She died Tuesday.
Her last years were tumultuous ones, made difficult by her husband’s affair and eventual admission that he’d fathered a child with the mistress. John and Elizabeth Edwards separated about a year ago.
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.