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Howard Coble funeral set for Tuesday (photos/videos)

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Updated 9:22 a.m. Thursday

GREENSBORO — The funeral for former U.S. Rep. Howard Coble will be held on Tuesday.

The service will be held on Tuesday at Westover Church at 505 Muirs Chapel Road in Greensboro, a church official confirmed Thursday.

The visitation is from 10 a.m. until noon, with his funeral to follow.

Coble, 84, died late Tuesday night after battling skin cancer for more than a decade. He had been in the hospital since late September, suffering from complications from the disease.

He was the longest-serving congressman in North Carolina's history, and memories of Coble from across the state and country poured in Wednesday as people learned of his death.


GREENSBORO — Former U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, the longest-serving Republican congressman in North Carolina history, died late Tuesday — Election Day. He was 84.

“A friend of mine told me he waited for the returns and then he went home for the final time,” Greensboro City Councilman Tony Wilkins said. “I thought that was just about perfect.”

Having battled skin cancer for more than a decade, Coble was admitted to Moses Cone Hospital in late September after complications from surgery related to the disease. He never recovered, according to Ed McDonald, Coble’s former chief of staff.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Wednesday. They will be announced later this week, according to a statement from Coble’s family.

A Greensboro native, Coble represented the 6th District in Washington for 30 years. Known for his constituent service and an amiable, courtly manner, Coble was a hero to fellow Republicans but also beloved by area Democrats.

“I think in today’s hyper-polarized environment, he really epitomizes an age where people were willing to acknowledge the other side and perhaps work with individuals,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor of history and political science at Catawba College in Salisbury. “That attitude has dissipated in the last generation of politicians who are now rigidly ideologically pure.”

Coble was, for most of his career, a reliable conservative. He voted for tax cuts and championed restrictive intellectual property bills beloved by large corporations.

But he also had a contrarian streak, refusing to adopt the party line if it conflicted with his ethics.

Earlier this year, a retired Coble spoke out publicly against the redistricting of the Greensboro City Council engineered by fellow Republicans in the General Assembly.

Objecting to several specifics of the bill, Coble said any redistricting should be voted on in a local referendum.

“The bill should have originated with the people of Greensboro since they are the ones affected by it,” Coble said.

In 2007, Coble gave a speech on the floor of the House against sending an additional 20,000 troops to a war in Iraq he said had been poorly planned and executed.

“I regret that we were inept in formulating a post-entry strategy,” Coble said. “I’m not convinced that any particular strategy was ever in place.”

The speech earned Coble the ire of some conservatives and even got him death threats. He laughed them off.

Similarly, Coble got criticism from some conservative gun rights activists in 2013 when he co-authored a bill to extend the nation’s ban on plastic firearms that can be slipped past security checkpoints.

That same year, Coble shocked some conservative supporters by demurring on the question of same-sex marriage in the wake of the passage of Amendment One, the state ban that was later found unconstitutional by a federal court.

“Someone asked me about the right for gays to marry,” Coble said in an interview with the News & Record. “And my answer was marriage is an institution in which I have never enrolled ... so, therefore, no comment.”

Though he joined the House Tea Party Caucus when it was formed in 2010, conservatives aligned with that movement challenged him in Republican primaries in 2010 and 2012. With broad support in his district, even as it shifted due to redistricting, Coble easily retained his seat.

Most agree the secret to Coble’s long political career, amid changing attitudes and demographics, was the personal connections he made with constituents. It was something on which Coble prided himself.

“Being asked to name a greatest accomplishment during my three decades in Congress, I would have to say that it is the countless thousands of people we have been able to assist throughout the 6th District,” Coble said in 2013, when he announced his retirement. “Having been blessed with a dedicated and talented staff, residents of the 6th District have long known that if they had a problem with the federal government, they could turn to our offices for assistance.

“I think it is important for elected officials to be visible and accessible and, pardon my immodesty, I feel I have lived up to that goal.”

That, in Coble’s inimitable gentlemanly style, is something of an understatement.

Beyond being widely accessible to the public and the press during working hours, Coble spent most weekends in his district attending Eagle Scout ceremonies, speaking at schools, attending parades, ribbon cuttings and fundraisers. He would stop to chat with constituents in grocery stores or at the post office, often letting his meal go cold so he could talk with constituents who came over to his table at restaurants.

“Not only was he everywhere, but everyone felt comfortable referring to him as just ‘Howard,’ ” Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan said. “He never put on airs.”

Occasionally, Coble admitted, his man-of-the-people instincts may have gone too far.

He famously refused to take a congressional pension in the name of fiscal conservatism — a decision that probably cost him more than $2 million over his lifetime. Coble said in 2013 that refusing the pension was “the most stupid financial decision” he ever made, but he believed the retirement was too generous for members and should be reduced.

But actions like that endeared Coble to those he represented.

After her first election to the the City Council in 1997, Vaughan recalled, she got a personal letter of congratulations from Coble.

“It made me feel so special that the congressman would take the time to notice a first-time district representative on the council,” Vaughan said. “But it was always important to him to find that personal touch in any interaction.”

A classic example of that personal touch was Coble’s frequent opening question upon meeting someone new from his district: “Where’d you go to high school?”

Coble prided himself on knowing the mascots of every school in the 6th District, correctly dubbing a new acquaintance a Grimsley Whirley, a Page Pirate or an Eastern Guilford Wildcat.

Upon meeting that person again — sometimes months or years later — Coble would unfailingly remember their name, details about their family and, of course, their school mascot.

“A popular notion among those who study American politics is that each representative develops a ‘home style’ in how they connect with those in their congressional district,” said Kyle Dell, an associate professor of political science at Coble’s alma mater, Guilford College. “Howard Coble’s home style represented an impressive, authentic and genuine connection to the people of central North Carolina.

“We understood who Congressman Coble represented and whose voice was important to him.”

That is likely to be his legacy, political observers said Wednesday.

“He really wasn’t known for great pieces of legislation or big-time achievements,” Bitzer said. “I think his longevity and the influence that he had on staff and on people close to him ... that’s what people will remember. That classic connection and mentorship that you don’t see a lot in politicians now.”

On Wednesday, a number of area politicians said they considered Coble a “mentor,” from N.C. Rep. Jon Hardister who once interned in Coble’s Greensboro office, to several members of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, who said his advice was invaluable.

McDonald, the former chief of staff, worked with Coble on his first campaign in 1984 — which he won by 79 votes.

“He was not interested in be ing grandiose,” McDonald said. “He wanted to help the day-to-day people.”

Coble was also known for his quirky personal style.

In the 1980s, it was his suspenders.

In the 1990s, it was seersucker.

In the 2000s, it was hats — baseball caps or slouchy bucket hats that protected his bald head from the sun.

Near the end of his career, it was loud madras jackets. A reporter once compared one to an exploding turtle — a description Coble loved and often repeated.

Coble told McDonald once his favorite gospel tune is “Sweet Beulah Land” and that by his 90th birthday, he hoped to be there, McDonald said.

“He got a lot of life in his 84 years,” McDonald said.

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Staff Writer Sarah Newell Williamson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Joe Killian at (336) 373-7023, and follow @JoekillianNR on Twitter.

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