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New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver lies in state at capitol rotunda in Trenton

Sheila Oliver lies in state at New Jersey capital
Sheila Oliver lies in state at New Jersey capital 03:02

TRENTON, N.J. -- Thursday marks the start of a three-day celebration of late Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver's life.

It began earlier in the morning at the State House in Trenton. Oliver, who died last week at age 71, lies in state inside the capitol rotunda.

Loved ones told CBS New York they can't count how many people she touched in her lifetime, always with moments of grace, adding Oliver was a true role model who will forever be missed.

Since Oliver had such a heavy presence in New Jersey, it seems almost impossible to carry the trailblazer's casket, but an honor guard brought the icon's body into the rotunda.

READ MORESheila Oliver leaves behind a legacy of helping those in need

Loved ones from far and wide were seen pouring in to begin to their final goodbyes.

The ceremony started with a private service before opening to the public.

"She wasn't afraid to reach back and bring up women like me and continue, until she took her absolute last breath," said Leslie Anderson, president and CEO of the New Jersey Redevelopment Authority.

Anderson worked closely with Oliver, the first Black woman to serve as Assembly speaker and then, in 2017, as lieutenant governor.

"(Oliver) found a way, professionally, to open up doors for women, and it's not easy to be the first woman anywhere. But to add to that, to be the first Black woman, is a challenge. But she did it with so much grace," Anderson said.

Oliver died after being hospitalized for an undisclosed medical issue. Women she mentored say the political world won't be the same without her.

READ MORELt. Gov. Sheila Oliver to be honored with official portrait

Oliver served dual roles and was also the commissioner of the state's Department of Community Affairs. Dr. Kimberly Holmes was her chief of staff.

"I can't tell you how much of a blessing she was in my life," Holmes said.

Holmes said Oliver was the reason she took the position.

"She knew how to work both sides of the aisle. There was no one too big or too small for the governor to reach out to. She truly embraced what was best about New Jersey," Holmes said.

Gov. Phil Murphy said he is devastated to lose his partner. He embraced Oliver's family and friends.

"She was an inspiration and icon and an irreplaceable friend, confidant and leader," Murphy said last week.

New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver lying in state 02:52

Legislators paid their respects, many with a single rose in hand.

"We brought the roses because she always said she was the rose between two thrones when she was the speaker," Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter said.

The loss is deep for Sumter.

"I still don't have the words, but we are powering through it. We wanted to make sure that she was laid to rest with grace, dignity, and that we showed up for her because she always showed up for us," Sumter said.

Members of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus were wearing Kente cloths, a symbol of African royalty, around their necks to show unity and their love for Oliver.

"This gives us a connection to our people who have struggled through the years and she was very much a part of that struggle," Democratic State Committee Chair Leroy Jones Jr. said.

"It has been a very tough day, but I am grateful to see that she is receiving the services befitting of a queen because she was our queen," Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake said.

The line for the public viewing was long as friends and local lawmakers came from all over the state.

"To show my respect as a woman and woman of color in the state of New Jersey. She paved the way for so many women who will follow in her footsteps," Atlantic City Councilwoman Stephanie Marshall said.

"The last text I said to her was if no one has told you you are our hero and we really appreciate you for clearing the pathway for us," 14th Assembly District candidate Tennille McCoy said.

The celebration of life will continue Friday. Oliver will be escorted to the historic Essex County Courthouse, where she will again lie in state.

A public memorial service will be held in Newark on Saturday at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart.

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