From Tibet to the Bay Area, Rep. Tom Lantos, who always called himself “an American by choice,” left behind a world of heavy hearts, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday during a memorial to the 27-year Congress member.
“Without Tom, I wouldn’t have been able to make that trip to meet with the Dalai Lama,” Pelosi said. “No matter where he went, Tom was never afraid to speak his mind about civil rights. His death was a terrible loss for this country, sad for this district, his constituents and the people he represented.”
Lantos, who died Feb. 11 after a battle with esophageal cancer, was remembered Wednesday by the people who most benefited from his public service — those who knew him not just as their civic leader but as a beloved friend or family member — packed into a convention center for one final, intimate farewell.
Lantos’ family, joined by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, Oracle Corp. founder Larry Ellison and a bevy of San Mateo dignitaries, recounted the Congress member’s life and achievements before a crowd of hundreds.
“He was a terrific representative, spoke his mind — a real gentleman,” 40-year San Mateo resident Diane Brown said. “What I admire about him most is how he struggled through his youth and was able to rise above that. I am really sorry he passed.”
Lantos, who was 80 when he died, represented southwest San Francisco and most of San Mateo County since 1980, winning his first election as an underdog and facing little opposition since. Formerly a San Francisco State University economics professor, he spent much of his political years rising through the ranks of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, finally becoming chairman when the Democrats won a congressional majority in 2006.
Lantos might have best been known as the only Holocaust survivor ever elected to Congress. As a Hungarian teenager, he escaped twice from a Nazi forced-labor camp, fought in the underground and hid in a safe house run by legendary Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
Lantos had announced his retirement prior to his death but was not able to serve out the remaining year of his final term.