TUPELO — The late U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee was a state senator for 15 years before being elected to Congress in 2010, but his greatest source of pride didn’t come from a political office.
“The title I’m most proud of is ‘Dad,'” Nunnelee said in a video clip played at his funeral Monday. It was a speech he gave in 2012 when the oldest of his three children graduated from law school.
More than 1,200 people packed the sanctuary of Calvary Baptist Church in Tupelo, Mississippi, to remember the third-term Republican congressman who died of a brain tumor Friday. He was 56.
About 40 members of Congress, including House Speaker John Boehner, attended the funeral, where Nunnelee was remembered as a man sustained by his Christian faith, even as he struggled with brain cancer and stroke recovery in the final months of his life.
Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, said Nunnelee reminded him of George Bailey from the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He said Nunnelee had an abiding love of family and was deeply involved in his community.
Bryant began one term as lieutenant governor in 2008 and appointed Nunnelee as Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, one of the top jobs in the state Legislature. Nunnelee hadn’t served on the budget-writing committee before Bryant put him in the role, but Bryant said he made the decision because he trusted his friend to handle the job under pressure.
“He was always telling me how wonderful life could be — even when he was Appropriations chairman and I was lieutenant governor,” Bryant said to the laughter of many at the funeral, including dozens of state legislators.
Boehner, who didn’t speak at the funeral, had said Friday that Nunnelee, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, was “the rare calming presence in the cauldron of politics.”
Nunnelee was diagnosed with brain cancer last spring, and he had a stroke as surgeons were removing a tumor in June. He underwent months of chemotherapy and radiation for the cancer and speech therapy and physical therapy to try to recover from the stroke. He was easily re-elected in November over a Democratic opponent who ran a low-budget campaign. He was hospitalized again in late December with a bleeding problem in his left leg, and doctors told him in late January that he had an inoperable tumor. Nunnelee was under hospice care when he died at home.
Reed Nunnelee recalled that his father regularly spent one-on-one time with each of his children. He also said his father was deeply committed to racial reconciliation, and was often invited to speak at African-American churches.
“In our house, Dad didn’t dismiss racism as some quaint little Southern quirk,” Reed Nunnelee said. “He rebuked it as the sin that it is.”
As a pianist softly played “America the Beautiful” at the end of the funeral, four Mississippi Highway Patrol officers removed the American flag that draped Nunnelee’s wooden casket. They solemnly folded it, then saluted as one officer handed the flag to the governor. Bryant knelt and handed the flag to Nunnelee’s widow, Tori.
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