'Woman of strength': State, national figures honor Walorski for living with conviction

·6 min read
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and former U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks, of Fort Wayne, stand by Thursday as Jackie Walorski's casket is carried to a hearse in advance of her funeral procession.
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and former U.S. Rep. Susan Brooks, of Fort Wayne, stand by Thursday as Jackie Walorski's casket is carried to a hearse in advance of her funeral procession.

GRANGER ― She was one of three Republican women sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives in January 2013, described by another of those colleagues as a "no-nonsense, get-it-done, move-it-or-lose-it woman of strength and integrity." She was a self-avowed "happy Hoosier" whose conversations with political peers regularly included mention of Michiana's robust RV industry. She was a devout Christian who founded a mission in Romania and hoped fervently that her work in Congress would convey her religious values.

In a word, speakers at her funeral agreed, she was Jackie.

Politicians and friends came from around Indiana and the nation Thursday for the memorial service of Jackie Renae Walorski Swihart, who was two weeks away from turning 59 years old when she died alongside three others in an Elkhart County car crash.

The shock following the Aug. 3 incident culminated in a two-hour ceremony where hundreds mourned her physical absence while honoring her faith with the belief that she's now, in a way, more alive than ever.

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"It is impossible on one day to quantify what this lady liberty, what this true Hoosier, torch-bearer, this good and faithful servant, accomplished before she entered eternity and met her maker's smiling, determined face," Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb said in remembrance of Walorski.

Joining the governor in speaking about the late congresswoman were U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California; U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, of Louisiana; two congressional Midwestern peers who joined Walorski in Washington in 2013; and Walorski's husband, Dean Swihart, a music teacher who sent off his spouse of 27 years with a saxophone solo while performing the Christian anthem "There's Something About That Name."

A South Bend native whose father was a firefighter and whose mother cut meat at a grocery store, Walorski built a reputation among friends and colleagues as a tenacious, often impatient woman of conviction. Part of that, speakers said, may have been because she grew up with two brothers.

It felt as if "the room tilted in her direction" when she walked in, Holcomb said, on account of the energy and confidence she emanated. During moments of intense scrutiny in the Indiana political scene, Walorski summoned a strength that the governor said he struggled to replicate but felt empowered by.

The funeral procession for U.S. Rep. Jackie 
Walorski travels on Elm Road Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, to Southlawn Cemetery in South Bend.
The funeral procession for U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski travels on Elm Road Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, to Southlawn Cemetery in South Bend.

McCarthy spoke of how, in her ascent to a prominent role on the House Committee on Ways and Means and the Committee on Ethics, Walorski rarely let doubt seep in where others may have succumbed. Her self-assuredness made her a chief motivator to Republican colleagues.

"With so many things that happen in Congress, it would be Jackie who would call me or be right behind me and kind of give me that extra spine when needed," McCarthy said. "When you didn't even know you needed it in that moment of time, but she did."

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Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner recalled how in 2013, she and two Hoosiers were the only three Republican women sworn into the House. That year, Wagner, Walorski and former Indiana District 5 Representative Susan Brooks were three of only 19 Republican congresswomen.

While in Washington, the three women lived in the same apartment complex in the capital's Navy Yard district. Walorski was the first to stand by her friends and colleagues in moments of adversity, Wagner said. Political anxiety among the congresswomen would dissipate over food, drink and gossip.

"We have truly lost one of the best of us," Wagner said through tears. "We will honor the memory of Jackie Walorski by putting one foot in front of the next in our service to God and country."

The length and breadth of Walorski's two-decade political career was evident in the line of current and former local government officials, Indiana leaders and members of Congress who stood by to watch pallbearers carry her casket draped with an American flag into a hearse.

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From Granger Community Church, a procession traveled 15 miles across St. Joseph County to Walorski's resting place, Southlawn Cemetery. Her burial, led by the U.S. Army, featured a gun volley, a flag folding and the playing of taps.

Burial for Jackie Walorski

Posted by South Bend Tribune on Thursday, August 11, 2022

Walorski was a Taylor University graduate who first worked as a stringer photographer for the South Bend Tribune and as a reporter for WSBT-TV. She went on to lead the St. Joseph County Humane Society and the South Bend Area Chamber of Commerce, and she held positions in higher education administration.

Her first date with Swihart, whom she would marry in 1995, foreshadowed an extraordinary move the couple would make together. He asked her, "Would you ever consider selling all of your stuff and moving overseas and being a full-time career missionary?"

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By the turn of the century, they were nontraditional missionaries in Romania. They helped to found churches while supporting children who were homeless, who were living in orphanages or who were burn victims.

With state Rep. Dick Mangus as her mentor, Jackie returned to the U.S. in the early 2000s and began her political career in 2004 as a District 21 state representative. She served six years and in 2012 was elected to serve Indiana's 2nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Linda Zwickl, far left, of South Bend holds up a sign for her childhood friend, U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, as she and others watch the funeral procession for Walorski Thursday, Aug, 11, 2022, on Elm Road at Grissom Middle School.
Linda Zwickl, far left, of South Bend holds up a sign for her childhood friend, U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, as she and others watch the funeral procession for Walorski Thursday, Aug, 11, 2022, on Elm Road at Grissom Middle School.

On a day that was inevitably somber, Walorski's husband brought levity to what he viewed as a celebration of life.

He shared his wife's simple pleasures: Mindlessly singing the melodies to songs whose lyrics he'd sung moments before. Riding her bicycle, its high handlebars resembling those of a Harley Davidson chopper. Floating on the water in a pontoon boat. The privacy of her backyard pool, fake palm tree and all.

It was that pool, where Swihart said "we could swim and the world didn't know," that Jackie looked forward to during a phone call with her husband last Wednesday, moments before the crash. She spent the sweltering morning touring businesses in northern Indiana, with stops at Warsaw and Claypool.

"Jackie is not dead the way you would imagine. … Right now, she's more alive than all of us together, put together, in this room," Swihart said. "Right now, she knows fully the things that we're having trouble to comprehend."

The Joint Forces Body Bearer team performs the flag-folding ceremony during the burial of the late congresswoman Jackie Walorski on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, in South Bend.
The Joint Forces Body Bearer team performs the flag-folding ceremony during the burial of the late congresswoman Jackie Walorski on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, in South Bend.

Email South Bend Tribune city reporter Jordan Smith at JTsmith@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @jordantsmith09

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Rep. Jackie Walorski funeral brings Gov. Eric Holcomb, national GOP