Erin Kelly, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Hundreds of congressional aides packed into the newly named Gabriel Zimmerman Meeting Room on Tuesday to dedicate it in memory of the young community outreach director who was shot and killed in Tucson while working for former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.
Zimmerman, who died at age 30, was honored with speeches by Vice President Biden, House Speaker John Boehner and members of Congress from his native Arizona.
As Giffords' husband Mark Kelly noted, the room in the Capitol Visitor Center would never have been renamed if not for the persistent efforts of congressional staffers just like Zimmerman.
"To be true to history, it was really you staffers who made it happen," Kelly said as he stood at the podium with Giffords. "You soldiered on and made sure it got done."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said there was "an unspoken rule" that none of the rooms in the new visitor center would be named in honor of individuals.
Zimmerman's colleagues fought successfully to make an exception for the Tucson resident, who was the first congressional staffer ever killed on the job. He died Jan. 8, 2011, after being shot by a mentally ill gunman who killed five others and wounded 13 more, including Giffords, at a "Congress on Your Corner" event.
"He will constantly be an inspiration to us," Pelosi said, noting that the big, modern room is the site of numerous meetings for staff members and lawmakers.
The dedication ceremony gave Zimmerman's friends and family members their first look at a bronze plaque with a sculpted likeness of Zimmerman's face above the words, "Gabriel 'Gabe' Zimmerman, Committed Public Servant, Friend To All."
The plaque, which hangs on a simple wooden column, goes on to read: "This meeting room is dedicated in memory of Gabe Zimmerman, who was shot and killed serving the people of Arizona while carrying out his duties as an aide to Representative Gabrielle Giffords. His dedication to community and to the Democratic process inspires us to help each other as fellow human beings and as citizens of a caring nation."
Biden, who was not originally scheduled to speak at the dedication, spoke poignantly to Zimmerman's parents about the loss of a child. The vice president lost his first wife and baby daughter in a car accident in 1972.
"No parent should have their child (die before) them," Biden said. "In my case, it was a baby, in your case, a grown man. It's the same -- actually, in your case, it may be even harder."
Amid the tears for Zimmerman, there were smiles as Rep. Ron Barber, D-Tucson and others told stories about his ability to charm constituents.
"He was actually a favorite of the seniors who live in Green Valley," said Barber, who worked closely with Zimmerman in Tucson as Giffords' district director before being elected to Congress. "Whenever I went out there for a visit, they'd be looking over my shoulder asking, 'Where's Gabe?' Not only was he gracious, but he was very handsome."
Biden made the crowd laugh when he explained the difference between congressional aides and lawmakers.
"I got elected to the Senate when I was 29, and I often was mistaken for a staffer," Biden said. "But people knew I wasn't a staffer as soon as I opened my mouth and nothing sensible came out."
Boehner said Zimmerman was the ultimate example of the "unsung professionals" who serve members of Congress and their constituents every day.
"May this now stand as a marker for our capacity to give, to care and to love," Boehner said of the plaque honoring Zimmerman.
Zimmerman's parents, Ross Zimmerman and Emily Nottingham, also spoke briefly.
"I've learned this about death: love survives," Nottingham said. She said she hopes the plaque will inspire future members of Congress to stand up for what they believe in.
Ross Zimmerman said he believes the room carries "an echo of Gabe."
"An echo of Gabe will persist," he said. "It isn't enough, but it's a strong echo."