OWENSBORO — "Senator, we've found your head."
David Adkisson quietly chuckled as he remembered delivering that line to the late U.S. Sen. Wendell Ford.
It was more than 20 years ago that a bust of Ford, which had been sitting on the Southeast corner of the courthouse lawn, was stolen by vandals.
Adkisson, now head of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, had worked for Ford, but he was the mayor here when he called the senator with the good news that his "head" had been recovered.
These were the kinds of stories that filled the sanctuary at First Baptist Church Tuesday morning as mourners traded their favorite stories of "Wendell" in hushed tones while waiting for the politicians to be seated and Ford's funeral to begin.
Vice President Joe Biden was there, delivering his memories of Ford as only Biden can, stepping to the pulpit and announcing: "My name is Joe Biden. I was Wendell Ford's friend."
Biden seemed as if he could've spoken for days about Ford, pausing only to mouth an apology to the preacher as the crowd laughed when the vice president didn't correct himself quickly enough and the word "hell" got out before he could change it to "what the heck?"
When Biden joked late in his remarks that Ford was looking down from heaven at that moment to say "cut it off, Joe," the man next to me leaned over and with a big smile whispered: "I actually heard him say that to him."
Bill Clinton was there, delivering his memories of Ford as only Clinton can. His increasingly raspy voice recalling the early days of his administration when Ford, serving as U.S. Senate Democratic Whip, worked to deliver the former president an early victory.
The crowd laughed again as Clinton noted that up until the day he died, Ford often reminded the president that neither his re-election nor the years of economic prosperity that followed would have happened were it not for Ford.
"I just loved the guy," Clinton said.
Though some streets were closed off for motorcades, Secret Service agents roamed the aisles of the packed church and metal detectors met mourners at the door, the service was still somehow an intimate affair.
Not because of the politicians who praised Ford's immeasurable body of service or the preacher who spoke of the senator's strong and enduring faith. It was intimate because Ford always remained an Owensboro boy, even when in the governor's office or the U.S. Senate chamber.
As Owensboroans leaned over and whispered to each other stories about their favorite encounter with "the boy from Yellow Creek," they paid their own brand of tribute to a man who left a lasting memory with everyone he met.
It was "a 90-year life that made a difference," as Terry Birdwhistell, dean of libraries at the University of Kentucky, said in his eulogy.
"He was a friend to farmers, coal miners and small-business owners," Birdwhistell said. "As well as presidents, vice presidents and world leaders."
Biden, reaching for the words of an Irish poet as he does so often, quoted James Joyce, who said that when he died, Dublin would be written on his heart.
"When Wendell Ford died, Kentucky — Owensboro — was written on his heart," Biden said.
After his retirement, Ford returned to his home here, with the same backyard I used as a shortcut when I was a boy fighting imaginary Russians with my friends.
It was, as Birdwhistell said, "not fancy but comfortable."
"And most importantly, it was home," he said.
Ford's body was laid to rest Tuesday afternoon, but his bust still stands on the courthouse lawn here.
While Owensboro and Kentucky are no doubt written on Ford's heart, as Biden said, so too is the senator's name written on the hearts of the town and the commonwealth that loved him just as much.