Politics & Government

Hundreds at Kay Hagan memorial service recall former senator’s passion, energy and faith

Former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan was remembered Sunday as a woman who brought tireless energy and passion to her job, her family and her faith.

More than a thousand people filled Greensboro’s First Presbyterian Church to honor Hagan, who died last week at 66 after a three-year battle with encephalitis, caused by Powassan virus.

The crowd included five of Hagan’s Senate colleagues: Sen. Richard Burr, an N.C. Republican, Democratic Sen. and presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and three former Democratic senators, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.

The service came almost 11 years to the day that Hagan defeated Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole to win election to the Senate and five years after she lost the seat to Republican Thom Tillis in what was then the nation’s most expensive Senate race.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a former state senator and one of many elected officials at the service, recalled recruiting Hagan to run for the state Senate in 1998.

“When Kay agreed to run ... we found out pretty soon that we had struck gold,” Cooper said. “When she would walk into a room you could feel the energy.”

Hagan would go on to serve five terms in Raleigh, where she rose from a back-bencher to one of the Senate’s top budget writers.

“Kay knew that relevance was about results,” Cooper said. “She knew that she had to reach across the aisle, roll up her sleeves and do the work.”

In 2009 Hagan returned to the Capitol where, as an intern in the mid-’70s, she’d operated the bronze elevator that ferried senators such as Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden and her uncle, Lawton Chiles, to and from the chamber. She daydreamed about a political career of her own. “It’s infectious,” she once said.

Opening the pool for women

Not long after her election, Hagan learned the U.S. Senate pool was for men only. She persuaded Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, then head of the Rules Committee, to end the practice. So notable was the victory for women, McCaskill said, that when Hagan left the Senate in 2014, her female colleagues had a goodbye party for her — at the pool.

McCaskill was one of several speakers who recalled Hagan’s almost incessant kindness, sense of humor and joyful spirit.

“You can measure a person by the love of those people who worked for them,” she said. “Team Kay was a very happy place, full of dedication and an an ethos of true public service.”

Rev. Dr. Sid Batts, Hagan’s longtime pastor, recalled an incident from the 2008 campaign.

Dole had run an ad saying Hagan had attended a fundraiser at the home of a man who headed the Godless Americans Political Action Committee, a group lobbying to end official references to God. Hagan “took Godless money, it said. The ad ended with a woman’s voice saying, “There is no God.”

Hagan, a church elder, called her pastor.

“What bothered her was (to have) her deeply held religious faith questioned,” Batts said. “Calling Kay Hagan ‘’Godless’ ... was offensive to the entire religious community.”

In a response ad of her own, Hagan said, “My faith guides my life.”

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Kay Hagan’s children, (from left) Carrie Hagan, Tilden Hagan and Jeanette Hagan give eulogies during former U.S. Senator Kay Hagan’s memorial service at First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, N.C., on Sunday, November 3, 2019. Khadejeh Nikouyeh/News & Record

Always making friends

Kay Ruthven was born in Shelby, the second of three children. The family moved to Charleston when she was 2 and later went on to Lakeland, Fla., where her father would serve as mayor. Hagan went to public schools and learned survival skills from her brothers.

Hagan went to Florida State and law school at Wake Forest. There she met fellow student Chip Hagan. After their first date, she called her mother. “I told her I met the man I’m going to marry,” she once recalled.

Their three children each spoke about their mother Sunday. Her daughter, Carrie Hagan Stewart, recalled that her mother always seemed to make new friends.

“My mom had so many best friends for a reason,” Stewart said. “She genuinely cared about each of us.”

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Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.