NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) – Congressman Donald Payne is being remembered at a funeral service in Newark.
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The 77-year-old trailblazing politician died last week after a battle with colon cancer.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and former President Bill Clinton spoke at the service at the Metropolitan Baptist Church Wednesday.
“Don Payne believed that peace was better than war,” Clinton said. “He believed that it was better to build than to break, and then pick up the pieces of what you had not built in the first place.”
Hundreds of Payne’s constituents and friends – all of whom had a story and memory of a man dedicated to service — were also in attendance.
“I came into politics a short time ago and he was almost like that big brother type, took me under his wing explaining how you can get things done effectively, always being a gentleman,” Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith said.
Payne grew up in Newark and made history as the first African-American in New Jersey to be elected to congress in 1988.
Those attending the service at the Metropolitan Baptist Church recalled his fight for the underprivileged — efforts that didn’t end at the borders of his district.
“A leader not only in this country but internationally helping to fight against the AIDS epidemic throughout the world,” Congressman Leonard Lance said.
Payne was a member of House committees on education and foreign affairs and served as chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa.
“I think his legacy is that he really cared,” friend Barbara George Johnson said. “He’s one of those congressmen who did not go to Washington and forget why he was there, he was there to serve people.”
Payne became a leading advocate for education in Congress, instrumental in funding Head Start and student loan programs — projects close to his heart.
He began his career as a teacher and taught third grade fresh out of college.
Rev. Calvin McKinney was one of Payne’s students and he said the congressman was always somebody to look up to.
“Back in the late 50s having a teacher who was African-American was a unique sight and thereby automatically a role model,” McKinney said. “Through the years his devotion to the people just increased and his willingness to serve has always been unique.”
Payne represented the 10th district, which covers parts of Essex, Hudson, and Union counties, for 23 years. He was elected for a 12th term in 2010.