Posted: June 14, 2010


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

The church held the state. St. James Episcopal Church is a 300-year-old sanctuary near Newark, compact and colonial in its motif, but in all its days, it never had a gathering like the one it had late Monday morning as its bell pealed in grief.

The Stars & Stripes and the Delaware flag, solemnly at half-staff in the dooryard by the governor's proclamation, signaled what was unfolding within.

It was a memorial service for Ada Leigh Soles a week after her death at 73. As a Democratic state representative from Newark from 1980 to 1992, she was hardly Delaware's most famous public figure or its most powerful, but she was its wise counsel and its conscience.

The church was the right place for this moment. No Delawarean could fail to fall for its historic charm or its intimate embrace, a site of worship since the days of Caesar Rodney with an interior that could just squeeze in the state's officialdom in a reminder that Delaware's smallness is its pride and joy.

So they came, 200 people shoulder to shoulder, upstairs and down, in the white boxlike pews.

Governor Jack Markell. The congressional delegation. Chancellor Bill Chandler, former Supreme Court Justice Bill Quillen and Len Stark, nominated for a federal judgeship. Newark Mayor Vance Funk. Former Lieutenant Governor John Carney. House Speaker Bob Gilligan and former Speaker Lonnie George. Past and present legislators, past and present Cabinet secretaries, professors, family members and friends.

The Rev. James Bimbi, who presided, was distinguished enough himself as the 41st rector of St. James but still seemed somewhat thrown by his congregation for the day. He supposed he was the only one there who never ran for office.

"I was president of my high school student council, if that counts," he said.

People came in memory of Ada Leigh Soles but just as much in honor of Jim Soles, her husband whose years as a political science professor at the University of Delaware made him a patron saint of state politics.

Together they guided a generation in public life, and the pews were crammed with people who treasured their touch.

Three governors spoke at the service -- Markell, the current Democratic one, along with Tom Carper, now a Democratic senator, and Mike Castle, now the Republican congressman.

Ada Leigh Soles was remembered for taking up the causes of learning and libraries and for her unequaled civic-mindedness and conduct. Still, she was no porcelain doll, as Jim Soles reminded everyone with a story he told.

"When a lobbyist invited her to dinner, he asked if he could get her a white wine spritzer, and when she replied, she served notice that she was not a 'lady' legislator but a legislator. 'No,' she said, 'but I would enjoy a double Jack Daniels on the rocks."

As Carper put it, "She had the calm confidence of a Christian holding four aces."

The tribute from Jim Soles was the heart of the memorial service. For him, it was love at first sight, but Ada Leigh made him work before he could turn it into love forever. He had to propose any number of times, and on his first try, she told him they should stop seeing each other.

"That is not just a 'no,'" he said.

Jim Soles is grateful he got Ada Leigh. As a matter of fact, Delaware is grateful it got her, too.