MORGANTON, N.C. -- Former Sen. Sam Ervin was mourned by colleagues who proclaimed his place in history for leadership in the Watergate investigation and by Blue Ridge neighbors who called him 'the most humble man in town.'
The 88-year-old constitutional scholar who called himself 'just an old country lawyer' died Tuesday of respiratory failure brought on by a three-week health crisis complicated by kidney failure.
Ervin became a folk hero with his quick wit and fondness for telling a tale when he presided over the 1973-74 Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities known as the Watergate Committee.
Former Sen. Howard Baker, R-Tenn., a member of the Watergate panel, recalled Ervin's 'abiding respect for the Constitution of the United States.
'His stewardship as chairman of the Senate Watergate Committee has established his place in history,' Baker said.
Politicians across the nation heaped praise on the 'courageous giant' but grief over Ervin's death was perhaps deepest felt by the 17,000 residents of Morganton, the mountain town that generations of Ervins called home.
Ervin's wife of 60 years, Margaret Bruce Bell Ervin, his son and two daughters gathered to plan his burial in his beloved Blue Ridge foothills of North Carolina, where he spent his final years practicing 'a little law,' writing, reading poetry and fishing.'
'He was the most humble man in town,' said J.D. Fitz, retired publisher of the Morganton News-Herald.
But lawmakers recognized a steel will behind Ervin's easygoing style.
'With his belief in basic American values and his pursuit of the truth, he helped to preserve our democracy during a critical period in our history,' Brooklyn District Attorney Elizabeth Holtzman, a member of the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate, said in New York.
'A courageous giant has fallen but America is far better because of his life, his dedication and his unfailing fidelity to principals that deserve to survive,' Sen Jesse Helms, R-N.C., said.
Nashville, Tenn., lawyer James Neal, Watergate special prosecutor, said Ervin was 'a great American, deeply committed to the Bill of Rights.'
'I have an image of his jowls shaking when he was indignant at one of the responses (from a witness at the hearings,)' Neal said.
Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., said Ervin's 'ability to understand and interpret the Constitution made him one of America's most valuable resources.'
Former California Gov. Jerry Brown called Ervin 'an unusual and wise human being who exemplified the very best in our constitutional tradition.'
Ervin retired to his modest home and law office in December 1974, ending a 20-year Senate career that began on the committee that censured Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., and ended with Watergate.