A family in life after death

Whether expecting to see her smile or hearing her advice echo in their ears, former staffers of the late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) have kept her memory alive nearly one year after her death through a group they call the “family.”

“The congresswoman had such a strong sense of family,” said Patrick Edmond, Tubbs Jones’s former policy director and one of the first people she hired after taking office in 1999. “And that still lives on in us.

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“There’s not a day when I’m on the Hill that I don’t expect to see her and her spirit, because we’re still working toward her standards regardless of what office we are in now,” said Edmond, who works as the senior director for government affairs with Amtrak.

After succumbing to a brain aneurysm while driving in her home state, Tubbs Jones left more than just her son; she is remembered fondly by more than a dozen staff members who grieve the loss. Already a tight-knit group, her staffers have grown even closer since last August, staying in regular contact and getting together for events and meals. Most recently, Nicole Williams, Tubbs Jones’s former communications director, organized a lunch over the Memorial Day recess.

“She made us a family,” said Lalla King, the late congresswoman’s former scheduler. “It’s a fantastic feeling. It came through pain and through loss but it appears that we have gotten tighter as a result of the boss leaving.”

King knew Tubbs Jones for nearly 40 years and had a nickname for her: The Boss.

“Even at times now, I find myself looking for a job and saying, ‘OK, boss, what’s going on with this situation?’ ” said King, who is a temporary employee with the office of the House clerk. “She was always there for us. She was not only our boss but our friend, and at times she would be our mother. Whatever we needed, she was willing to play that role.”

Since Tubbs Jones’s passing, King has taken on some of that motherly role with younger colleagues. Aaron Wasserman, 24, a former legislative correspondent for Tubbs Jones who started interning in her district office when he was 16 years old, said the staff helped raise him. And as people do with their families, Wasserman recently called King to ask her to meet his new girlfriend, seeking her approval.

One of the qualities her former staff take with them in their daily lives is Tubbs Jones’s renowned sincerity when talking with nearly everyone she encountered, from U.S. Capitol Police officers to janitors in the broom closet, according to Edmond and King.

Tubbs Jones’s convivial nature did not stop when she left the Capitol grounds, and part of being in her circle meant going out together after work, never knowing how big her “family” would grow on those evenings.

“It was exciting,” said Patrice Willoughby, her former chief of staff and the current executive director for the Congressional Black Caucus. “You never knew who was going to end up in your car. One night I had driven us out to a dinner, and she was very inclusive, so she offered everyone rides. And I ended up having six, maybe seven, members of Congress crammed into my car sitting on top of each other.”

But that was part of the joy in working for Tubbs Jones, said King, who as her scheduler would always budget an extra 15 minutes into her appointments so she could talk to people on the way and not run late.

“She was always a person who was always concerned about what was happening to somebody else,” King said. “She grew up with that in her.”

The Tubbs Jones office was close even before her death, as she insisted on cooking large meals for regular office parties at her house. And not only did Tubbs Jones attend Edmond’s wedding, but all of his fellow colleagues stitched a quilt for him and his wife. And when his daughter was born, Tubbs Jones was one of the first three people Edmond called with the news.

It is this degree of family and sincerity that has permeated Tubbs Jones’s former staff and even those who found themselves opposed to her political position, they said. During last year’s presidential campaign, Tubbs Jones supported Hillary Rodham Clinton over Barack Obama in the Democratic primary. But at her funeral, Obama, whom she came to support in the general election, spoke of how much her friendship meant to him.

“Stephanie and I started off on different sides, and we would see each other, and she just said to me, ‘This is what it means to be a friend for me.’ ” Obama said. “And all I could say is, ‘I understand.’ And that is a testimony to her and the kind of person she was.

“What struck me most about Stephanie is how, even after a decade in Congress, she was so utterly unaffected by the ways of Washington,” he said. “Whether she was dealing with an intern or an ambassador, she’d have that same radiant warmth, that same good-natured ribbing, she’d be hugging people that probably the protocol said you shouldn’t hug.”

Whether going back to school or taking a job with the Democratic National Committee, Tubbs Jones’s staffers felt her encouraging them to further their careers, even if it meant leaving her office, they said.

So after her death, nearly all of her staff felt she would have wanted them to seek out new jobs. Yet while most did secure jobs, almost all of them stayed on to the last day, filing documents to be archived, taking pictures off the walls and cleaning out their desks.

But in a testament to how dear they held her, one thing the staff said they haven’t been able to do is delete her phone numbers from their phones. It just doesn’t seem right, they said.

And just like her phone number, her legacy lives on.

“The period in which people come to work on Capitol Hill is such a formative period, and working with someone who has strong character and values, someone who’s intelligent, that really sets the stage for that person’s future professional outlook and their worldview,” Willoughby said.

Edmond said her spirit will live on with his own family.

“My family lives by her standards,” he said. “As a father with a little girl, I want my daughter to grow up with those qualities in terms of what she brought on a day-to-day basis. It’s like the reverse of wine. Wine starts out as grapes; [Tubbs Jones’s] wisdom starts out as wine, and I’m passing it on.”