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The weather was picture-perfect, a balmy, breezy Saturday afternoon in Miami Beach. The wedding party had gathered on the dock overlooking Biscayne Bay.

The men, decked out in black suits, silver ties and white shirts, were enjoying cocktails on the dock. The women, resplendent in long fuchsia dresses and encircled by bright, colorful flowers, were busy posing for – and taking – photographs.

Everyone was relaxed. We were all hanging out, cracking jokes, telling stories. Well, all but one of us, and he couldn’t stop pacing – or perspiring. He was 52, a big, barrel-chested African-American man with a furrowed brow and a booming voice.

We had, back then in the spring of 2003, been friends for nearly eight years, but I’d never seen him like this. I remember it vividly, every detail. Because the wedding was mine, and U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings was nervous. He was about to officiate his first wedding.

***

Earlier this month, Elijah Cummings passed away. He was way too young; only 68. But what a life he led.

The seventh child of South Carolina sharecroppers, Elijah lived the American Dream. He overcame a stammer to become a spell-binding orator whose powerful voice reached every part of our great nation. Starting at the bottom, he rose to the heights of power in Washington, D.C., all the while keeping in the forefront of his mind the people of his beloved Baltimore, my hometown and his, for whom he dedicated his life’s work.

A hard-working attorney, Elijah first earned election to the Maryland House of Delegates in 1982. He served for 14 years, ultimately rising in 1995 to become Speaker Pro Tem – the first African-American to hold that position.

I met him a few months later. Kweisi Mfume had resigned his position in Congress to become head of the NAACP, and Elijah announced he would run in the special election for Mfume’s open seat. He hired me to make his TV and radio commercials and help put together his campaign.

The election was anything but normal. Because it was a special, politicians could run without having to give up their current positions. Twenty-nine Democrats ran. We did a poll and Elijah started in third place, 17 points behind. A few months later, as voters came to know him, he surged. On Election Day, Elijah won by 18 points – a huge come-from-behind win. It was the beginning of a life-long, life-changing friendship.

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***

My fiancée June and I asked Elijah to preside over our wedding. He asked, why him, and I said, "Because you know me as well as anyone, and you’ll bring love, grace, and dignity to my wedding." He quickly accepted. Then he looked at me and confessed, "I’ve never done this before."

"Well, I’ve never been married before, so it’ll be a new experience for both of us," I replied. "Besides, if you mess up, it’s only one day. If I mess up, it’s the rest of my life!" He burst out laughing.

Six months later, he was there, welcoming guests, speaking slowly, building to his signature crescendo. "This wedding is not about two people marrying each other because they found common ground," he thundered. "It’s about two lives coming together as one because they seek a higher ground. A higher ground wherein they dedicate themselves to each other and to help others. A higher ground wherein they right wrongs, fight injustice, and respect the dignity and God-given potential bestowed within each of us." Say this about Elijah Cummings: He constantly raised the bar.

Over the years, we grew closer. We talked politics, and some baseball, but we also talked life. Marriage. Raising kids. Growing old. We discussed God, faith and giving back. Especially giving back. "When you can help people when they’re down," he’d say, "that’s when you’re making a real difference."

***

Elijah Cummings was always making a difference. Whether fighting for youth employment programs, writing legislation to reduce the cost of prescription drugs, leading a youth group to Israel every year to foster better relations between African-Americans and Jews, or leading late-night marches down the streets of his native Baltimore, megaphone in hand, after Freddie Gray’s death to quell the uprising, he was an unstoppable force. A learned man who never knew the meaning of the word "can’t."

These days, many are rightfully mourning the passing of a great man and a political giant. A warrior who dedicated his life to civil rights, to voting rights, to helping the less fortunate. A public servant who loved his family, his friends, his city, his constituents and his country. But, to me, he will always be my lodestar – my friend whose living example and moral compass always pointed north.

And while I will always treasure the memories of Elijah Cummings delivering with great strength and passion the speeches I wrote for him over the two decades we worked together, I will especially cherish the memory of him giving one speech he wrote entirely on his own – the one in which he pronounced June and me husband and wife.

Rest in peace, my friend.

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Dave Heller is the owner of the Quad-Cities River Bandits. Voices of the Quad-Cities, a weekly column, appears on Tuesdays.

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