JASPER, Ark. — When they first met some 23 years ago, Hilary Jones was a local Democratic stalwart who took the young Bill Clinton under his wing quite literally, volunteering his small airplane to fly the would-be politician across the Ozark Mountains in what turned out to be a futile campaign for Congress.
When they finally parted ways Friday, Clinton brought his own plane, now designated Air Force One, as well as a quarter-century of memories of one of his earliest and staunchest supporters.
"I can't exactly describe it, but after the first time I met him I knew that my life would never quite be the same," Clinton said in delivering the eulogy of a mentor who died on Tuesday at age 70. "He wasn't like anybody I had ever met before, and I've seen a little bit more of the world since then and I never have met anybody like him since."
For the second time in a month, a somber and nostalgic president returned to Arkansas to bury someone who played an important role in an earlier stage of his life. Although Jones was not kin, like his great-uncle Henry Oren "Buddy" Grisham, who died last month, he was "one of my closest personal friends" and even "a surrogate uncle or father," according to Clinton.
As Clinton recounted, Jones was "pure Arkansas hillbilly" whose "mountain man" exterior belied a penetrating intelligence. He was also a fiercely partisan Democrat. Once after Clinton gave a speech citing Abraham Lincoln, Jones pulled him aside for a little advice. "Bill," Clinton recalled him saying, "that is a wonderful speech. And you can give that speech in Little Rock any day. Don't you ever come up here and brag on that Republican president again." Indeed, Clinton said, it took some persuasion during a visit to the White House last year to convince Jones to sleep overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom.
Virtually the entire town, and then some, turned out for Friday's funeral, with more than 300 people packing the sanctuary and another 100 sitting on plastic chairs in the halls and lobby outside. After a service that included a melancholy country music song, the casket was opened and mourners paraded past. When it came time for his row to walk forward, Clinton moved to another part of the church so as to be one of the last. He lingered at the open casket.
"He took me into his home and his heart," Clinton said. "I learned a lot about politics and people."