Blackmun helped see the nation through important reckonings with First Amendment freedoms, racial equality and the Roe vs. Wade abortion decision, for which he is best remembered, Justice Stephen G. Breyer said at a memorial service Tuesday.
Blackmun died Thursday at 90. First lady Hillary Clinton, Supreme Court colleagues and Attorney General Janet Reno also attended the service.
As unusually heavy snow fell on Washington, a fellow native Minnesotan, humorist Garrison Keillor, led mourners in singing the Irish lullaby Toura Loura, Loura. Keillor said it was a Blackmun favorite.
Breyer, who succeeded Blackmun on the court, said that in Blackmun's 24-year tenure, he "made a direct, conscious effort to reach out and understand those whose life experience was different from his own."
Trained as a mathematician, Blackmun retired from the court in 1994 at age 85 because, he said, he knew "what the numbers are," and it was time to go, Breyer remembered.
Blackmun got tens of thousands of letters after he wrote the 1973 Roe vs. Wade opinion, which legalized abortion nationwide.
One very long letter urged Blackmun to resign, Breyer said. The justice's reply was succinct: "Dear Sir, No. Sincerely, Harry A. Blackmun."
Harold Koh, a former Blackmun law clerk and now an assistant secretary of state, called him "the people's justice" who "through quiet courage and sheer hard work became the conscience of our court in the late 20th century."
His daughter, Nancy Blackmun, said his long hours at work limited his time with his family, but she added that for his three daughters, "his were the most comforting hands to hold."
The Rev. William A. Holmes said Blackmun brought to religion and the law "a creative fidelity marked by humility, and always with a twinkle in his eye."
Mrs. Clinton sat beside Blackmun's widow, Dorothy, in the front row of the Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church, where the Blackmuns were regular worshipers. Across the aisle were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, seven of the eight associate justices, and retired Justice Byron R. White the only living retired justice. Justice Antonin Scalia was out of town because of an illness in the family.