More than 100 of U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms' family members, friends and associates gathered Wednesday night to see the senator's portrait unveiled in one of congressional Republicans' most distinguished enclaves, the private Capitol Hill Club.
As attendees sipped wine at an evening reception, artist René Dickerson, his heart pounding, fumbled with the black cloth draped across the portrait he spent about 100 hours painting.
"I hope I was able to capture some of the essence of Senator Helms," Dickerson said to the group.
Helms' widow, Dot, stood nearby, apprehensive.
The cloth dropped, and the room gasped. "Yes!" shouted one man. "It's beautiful," breathed a woman. The room broke into long applause.
Dot Helms smiled. "I thought it was very good," she said. "He had that twinkle in his eye, and he captured it."
Speakers honored Helms as a senator who spent 30 years defending America and tending to his North Carolina constituents. They described him as a man of respect, integrity and action.
"There's a lot of difference between understanding the equality of opportunity and the equality of results," said former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana. "And he taught us all that."
Helms died July 4, 2008. His portrait will hang in the Eisenhower Room of the Capitol Hill Club, an establishment where Republicans gather to raise campaign money, share drinks and discuss the day's issues.
"He should be here," said Pat Devine, Helms' longtime personal secretary, looking around the room Wednesday night. "He really is a titan."
The portrait imagines Helms standing behind a leather chair, hands clasped, a North Carolina state flag draped behind him.
"I think the picture captures his caring heart and his humility," said John Snyder III, Union County district attorney, who worked on Helms' personal staff in the 1990s.
"He looks like he's getting ready to tell you a story, or listening," Snyder said. "He was a good listener."
The portrait came about through the work of the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, spurred by former Helms staffer Brian Summers. Summers, a Statesville native who spent several years on Helms' staff after college, said he wanted to repay the man who started him on his path in adulthood.
"For me, this is very personal," Summers said. "I never got to say thank you."