At Arlington, a funeral in the time of COVID-19: Saying goodbye to Pa. U.S. Rep Don Bailey

Scenes from the funeral of former U.S. Rep. Don Bailey at Arlington National Cemetery (Photo courtesy of Tom Squitieri via Arlington National Cemetery)

By Tom Squitieri

ARLINGTON, Va.  —  One of Washington, D.C.’s worst winter storms in history greeted newly-elected congressman Don Bailey when he arrived at the U.S. Capitol to take his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives on January 3, 1979.

It said goodbye to him Monday with much nicer weather.

Bailey, a former Pennsylvania congressman and auditor general — as well as a decorated Vietnam veteran — was buried in Arlington National Cemetery Monday afternoon with blue skies, white clouds and the hot muggy demands of a D.C. summer.

Yet as was often typical of Bailey’s storybook moments of life, the blazing heat gave way to unexpected breezes, stirring leaves of old oak trees above his grave site in a prime burial location one section away from President John F. Kennedy.

Don Bailey campaign button (Courtesy Tom Squitieri)

“No place at Arlington National Cemetery can be purchased,” Army Captain Jason Phipps, the chaplain, said during Bailey’s ceremony. “It must be earned.”

Bailey earned his spot in Arlington for serving 15 months with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam and combat that brought him the Silver Star, three Bronze Stars and the Air Medal, among other honors.  When he entered Congress in 1979, he was the most decorated veteran in the House of Representatives.

A burial location cannot be reserved at Arlington and placement depends on the luck of timing and the type of burial. Bailey died on March 9 but because of then newly imposed restrictions due to COVID-19, daily burials slowed. He also was in line for what many considered a more traditional funeral: a casket in the ground.

When his turn came, a spot was open in Section 32, right below the Kennedy memorial and among veterans of all recent conflicts. 

The section is informally known as the John Dill section, after British Field Marshal Sir John Greer Dill. The highest-ranking foreign military officer buried at Arlington National Cemetey, Dill died while in Washington during World War II and there is an equestrian memorial of him at the front of the section.

Buried to Bailey’s right are Stafford Newell Ordahl, a World War Two and Korea veteran, and Patrick Hurley, a veteran of the Persian Gulf, Grenada and Panama, and a Purple Heart recipient. Buried to his left are Melvin Rosen, a World War Two, Korean War and Vietnam veteran who survived the Bataan death march, and Jack Valenti, a World War Two veteran who went on to head the Motion Picture Association of America.

“Each (head)stone is a foundation of America’s freedom”, Chaplin Phipps said. “In life, he honored this flag. Now, this flag honors him.”

Scenes from the funeral of former U.S. Rep. Don Bailey at Arlington National Cemetery (Photo courtesy of Tom Squitieri via Arlington National Cemetery.)

It was similar good timing that helped Bailey launch his political career in 1977 and 1978. 

He helped manage the candidacy of a maverick Democratic judge candidate in Westmoreland County in 1977, who won. That race taught Bailey all the side roads and small shopping areas festooned with voters who were being ignored by other candidates.  When longtime Pennsylvania congressman John Dent announced his retirement in 1978 Bailey and 10 other Democrats jumped into the race along with four Republicans. 

Vote Bailey, for Congress, a name you can trust.  Honesty, integrity, with Bailey it’s a must” went the first lines of the Don Bailey campaign polka that often played at his instant rallies.

The timing was perfect; those voters remembered Bailey from the year before and gave him 23 percent of the vote — enough for the Democratic nomination and his ticket to Congress.

Before the November election, Bailey was invited to travel to north central Pennsylvania where then House Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill was headlining a political rally. After O’Neill congratulated him on his win Bailey said, “Well, I’m a little more conservative than you Tip.” The Speaker starred at Bailey and then gave a hearty laughed and walked away, leaving his entourage stunned at Bailey’s bluntness.

That bluntness became a trademark.

When Bailey arrived in Congress he was 21st in seniority in the 25-member Pennsylvania delegation, then a curious collection of disparate politicians with no seemingly common goal for the state.

Bailey found spots on Education and Labor and Armed Services, then later on Ways and Means, and Ethics committees.  He was successful in writing tax breaks for the steel industry and drafting a legislative compromise which saved Pennsylvania and other states  from being squeezed on payment of heavy debts in their unemployment compensation funds.

He also earned a reputation of speaking his mind and not averse to a good prank. For example, Pennsylvania Democratic House members used to congregate in the corner far to the right of the House Speaker podium. The area thus acquired the name of the Pennsylvania Corner.

Bailey nicknamed it the Cherokee Corner, for reasons that kept changing to his amusement.

He was also not averse to calling out those he thought wrong. His passion for civil rights and fairness prompted harsh words against Rep, John Murtha, the Johnstown Democrat, when the two squared off after redistricting cost Pennsylvania two congressional seats. Bailey lost that race and was out of Congress.

At Arlington, the chaplain noted how Bailey’s life “was rooted in fighting for civil rights.”

Many think Bailey’s bluntness and moderate philosophy helped him win the Democratic nomination for Pennsylvania auditor general in 1984. He was the only Democrat to win statewide in 1984, a year of Ronald Reagan down ballot sway.  He narrowly lost a bid for the Democratic Senate nomination in 1986.

That bluntness caught up with him in Harrisburg, where he was ultimately disbarred for daring to say that there are federal Judges who were acting in a corrupt ways.

None of that was heard during the rifle salute, the bugle farewell and the snapping of a flag being folded on Monday at Arlington. 

“Arlington National Cemetery’s mission of laying to rest our nation’s veterans and their families continues,” Karen Durham-Aguilera, Executive Director, Office of Army Cemeteries and Arlington National Cemetery, said. “We are taking these proactive steps to protect the public, families, our service members and staff.”

There were roughly 6,290 burials in Arlington during 2019.  There have been 1,028 burials since March 30, the first day funerals were conducted after closing to the public.

Concerns of COVID-19 have prompted changes. Up to 50 immediate family members are permitted to witness a ceremony. Families will have the option to postpone the arrangement to a later date. The regulations cover all of the roughly 140 national cemeteries — the final resting places for military veterans and their spouses.

Before COVID-19, there were about 1,400 military funerals each day across the U.S.

Members of the 3d U.S. Infantry, traditionally known as “The Old Guard,” conducted the honored memorial service for Bailey on Monday. The Old Guard is the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army, serving since 1784. 

Tom Squitieri is a Washington D.C.-based freelance journalist. His work appears occasionally in the Capital-Star.