Posted: Aug.26, 2003


By Celia Cohen

Grapevine Political Writer

There can never be another funeral like the one Delaware staged on a long Tuesday afternoon for James H. Gilliam Jr., when the state's royalty laid to rest one of its own, one of its finest, one of its irreplaceable.

All the essences of Delaware he touched in his remarkable, tireless life were there. Politics. Law. Banking. Education. Business. Fraternities. Charities. Churches. Clubs.

There were also the essences all his own. Mother. Father. Wife. Sister. Daughters. Friends. So many friends who were so different from one another that their only common bond seemed to be Jim Gilliam Jr., whose greatest talent among so many talents was his gift for bringing people together.

The governor came, as did the senators and the congressman, the mayor and the chief justice, all paying their respects to the one who needed no title, and so the Delaware royals gave him one this day.

"Good night, sweet Prince," the speakers kept saying. The Rev. Maurice J. Moyer, who officiated, said it. Chief Justice E. Norman Veasey said it. Stacey J. Mobley, a DuPont Co. senior executive and fellow lawyer, said it.

To say good-bye, it took more than three hours, more than a thousand mourners, the cavernous Carpenter Center at the University of Delaware in Newark, and the Morgan State University Choir in a voice so powerful that the heavens had to know Gilliam Jr. had departed.

Gilliam Jr. died last Wednesday, Aug. 20, at the age of 58, untimely ripped from his family and from his state that clearly adored him and counted on him. He had been a corporate lawyer and investor, a Cabinet secretary, a banker, a trustee for colleges and law schools, and a philanthropist.

Judges were named on his recommendation. A revitalization began in Wilmington with his commitment. His generosity to Morgan State, his alma mater in Maryland, helped to create a performing arts center named for his parents, James H. Sr. and Louise Hayley Gilliam.

Gilliam Jr. was a second-generation Gilliam to make his mark in Delaware, which became home when the family moved here in 1965 from Baltimore. Both parents were social workers by training. Their son became a lawyer and their daughter Patrice a doctor.

Gilliam Sr. blazed the way as a housing specialist, court administrator, New Castle County department director and most recently in 1999 as the founder of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League. As high as Gilliam Sr. set the standard, Gilliam Jr. moved it higher.

Gilliam Jr. dissolved barriers, doing the hard work himself, so others could follow. In the 1970s he became the first African-American in Delaware in the Cabinet, where he was appointed to be the secretary of Community Affairs and Economic Development by Gov. Pierre S. du Pont. His selection was all the more noteworthy because Gilliam Jr. was a Democrat in a Republican administration. Gilliam Jr. was on his way.

The funeral drew one of those crowds that could come together only in Delaware. Gilliam Jr. was a confidant to Democratic Sen. Thomas R. Carper and helped him to unseat former Republican Sen. William V. Roth Jr., but Roth was there with his wife, U.S. Circuit Judge Jane R. Roth, whose family founded the law firm of Richards Layton & Finger in which Gilliam Jr. once worked. Louis J. Capano Jr., one of Gilliam Jr.'s closest friends, was a speaker, and there in the crowd was William Swain Lee, the ex-judge who sentenced Capano's brother.

The speakers spoke of their shock, their grief and their friendships cut short. U.S. District Judge Gregory M. Sleet read condolences sent from the citadels of power by former President Bill Clinton and from the modest roots of the Monday Club, so named because it was started in a darker time when Monday was the day off for chauffeurs and they could relax together.

Carper was inspired by the Morgan State choir's singing of a spiritual about "balm in Gilead" to go one better.

"There is a balm in Gilliam," Carper said. "There's nobody like him, nobody like him. . . . People say he was a role model for African-Americans, and I just think that's wrong. He was a role model for all of us."

Ronald "Butch" Lewis, the boxing promoter, talked about the way he always called his friend "Jim Dandy" after the 1960s song with the refrain, "Jim Dandy to the rescue." He sang it, too.

Lewis also took a look at the dates of Gilliam Jr.'s life, written as April 21, 1945-Aug. 20, 2003, and he said that life is stored in the dash between the dates. "To compare our dash with Jim, what a better place the world would be," Lewis said. "Work on your dash."

Gilliam Jr. was eulogized by the Rev. Ward Greer of Ezion-Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church of Wilmington. The pastor said Gilliam Jr. lived the vision of community.

"He built bridges. He destroyed walls," Greer said. "Glory, glory, glory hallelujah, thank you, Jim."

Gilliam Jr. died the week before the nation observed the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington. On Aug. 28, 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of having a dream, "when we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city . . . when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, 'Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'"

When King was killed, it was left to people like Gilliam Jr. to bring the dream alive. As it showed at his funeral, where so many Delawareans came together, he did.