Koch died Friday of congestive heart failure at age 88.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and David Dinkins held their hands to their hearts outside of Fifth Avenue. Security was tight, as a cadre of NYPD helicopters buzzed overhead while bagpipes wailed on the freezing February afternoon.
Koch was remembered for his unique persona and his devotion to New York during a funeral that frequently elicited laughter, recalling his famous one-liners and amusing antics in the public eye.
Mayor Bloomberg told the crowd, “We had such respect for him because of his outsized personality, matched by his integrity, his intelligence and his independence.”
He added that the “brash and irreverent” Koch, who governed the city during the 1970s and 1980s, must be “beaming” from all the attention that his death has generated. “No mayor, I think, has ever embodied the spirit of New York City like he did,” Bloomberg said.
Bloomberg noted that the funeral was being held near “a certain East River span” – – referring to the 59th Street bridge, which was renamed the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge in 2011. Drawing hearty laughter from the crowd, Bloomberg described the bridge dedication ceremony and recalled Koch standing there for 20 minutes, yelling: “Welcome to my bridge!”
Bloomberg recalled receiving Koch’s endorsement for his first run for the mayor’s office in 2001: “I was new to politics, didn’t know a thing about it. But I always remembered the advice he gave me. He said, ‘Be yourself, say what you believe, and don’t worry about what people think.’ And God knows, he didn’t worry about it. He was as genuine a politician as America has ever seen. He understood that if you take tough stances and give it to the people straight, they will respect you for being honest, even when they don’t agree with you. And that scares the hell out of press secretaries and political consultants, but the average citizen in New York really admires it.”
Praising Koch as a “doting grandfather” who was devoted to his family, Noah Thayer, Koch’s grand-nephew, recalled fond memories of great uncle attending elementary school soccer games and getting a manicure with his 11-year-old grand-niece.
“While he knew he was often portrayed as a lonely bachelor, it didn’t matter,” Thayer said. “He saw in his family only perfection.”
Representing President Barack Obama at the funeral was former President Bill Clinton, who said the world was a better place because Koch had “lived and served.”
“He had a big brain,” Clinton said. “But he had a bigger heart.”
As a friend of both Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Koch provided assistance to her during the successful campaign she waged for the U.S. Senate from New York, according to George Arzt, a Koch spokesman. The mayor also backed Hillary Clinton in her presidential run.
Holding up a hefty pile of papers, former President Clinton declared, “This is not my speech!” but said they constituted the voluminous amount of letters he had received from Koch during his presidency, on issues ranging from gun violence to missile defense to Israel to taxes to scouting.
Recalling a particularly passionate issue of Koch’s, President Clinton said, “It was imperative that we give young people who’d gotten in trouble a second chance. That they should be given a chance to serve in Americorps or do something else, and if they got their GED and they stayed off drugs, their records should be sealed and their convictions should be purged so that if ever they were asked again in their life, ‘Did they have a criminal conviction?’ they could honestly say no. He said, ‘You have to give people a second chance.’”
The Israeli Consul General, Ido Aharoni, remembered Mayor Koch as a fierce defender of Israel. “It was his warm heart and not his battle scars that defined his relationship with Israel. Mayor Koch, whether it was your candid outspokenness or your warm friendship, Israel hears you loud and clear.”
Six uniformed officers from the NYPD and the fire department were standing alongside his wooden coffin as part of Koch’s honor guard.
While Koch was buried at the non-denominational Trinity Church cemetery in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, his tombstone reflected his deep connection with his Jewish heritage. It features the now famous words uttered by slain Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl: “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish” and the tradtional Shema Yisrael prayer will also be inscribed.
Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation, is considered by many to be one of the nation’s most prominent synagogues, and boasts such members as NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg, comedian Joan Rivers and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer.
After purchasing the burial plot in Trinity Church Cemetery in 2008, Koch told the Associated Press that, “I don’t want to leave Manhattan, even when I’m gone. This is my home. The thought of having to go to New Jersey was so distressing to me.”
Among Koch’s accomplishments during his 12 years at the helm of the Big Apple was that his efforts helped save New York from a near economic collapse while enraging minorities with a purportedly racist stance.
Mayor Bloomberg said his predecessor’s “tough, determined leadership and responsible fiscal stewardship … helped lift the city out of its darkest days and set it on course for an incredible comeback.”
He added, “When someone needed a good kick in the rear, he gave it to them.”
Koch lost the Democratic nomination for mayor in 1989 to David Dinkins, who succeeded him.
Koch said he was defeated “because of longevity.” In his words, “people get tired of you.”
But as the votes were coming in, he said he told himself, “I’m free at last.”
Also Monday, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney will make a recommendation to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to rename a Manhattan subway station in Koch’s honor.
She will propose that the subway station at East 77th Street and Lexington Avenue be called “Mayor Ed Koch subway station.” She will also announce renaming the street corner there “Mayor Edward I. Koch.”
City officials have introduced legislation to officially rename the station.