By David Bailey
SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota (Reuters) - Mourners gathered on Friday for the funeral of former U.S. Senator George McGovern, a soft-spoken South Dakota native and passionate opponent of the Vietnam war who shaped the Democratic Party even in a landslide defeat in the 1972 presidential race.
Close friends, family and those he mentored directly and indirectly called McGovern a man of principle and decency during a prayer service on Thursday night.
"He is the father of the modern Democratic Party," Vice President Joe Biden said, calling McGovern a "good and decent man" who opened the party up to women, minorities and young people, and inspired a generation of leaders.
McGovern, who was born and raised in South Dakota, died in Sioux Falls on Sunday at a hospice center at age 90.
Among those expected to speak at Friday's funeral are former U.S. Senator Tom Daschle, a South Dakota native.
McGovern suffered one of the most lopsided defeats in U.S. history in the 1972 election, winning only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, against a well-oiled Republican political machine headed by Richard Nixon.
Later, as Nixon's presidency unraveled in the Watergate scandal, bumper stickers saying, "Don't blame me, I'm from Massachusetts," and buttons saying "Don't blame me, I voted for McGovern," appeared.
A B-24 bomber pilot during World War Two, McGovern flew 35 missions over Europe, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was not a pacifist even as he opposed the Vietnam war, said historian Thomas Knock, who is writing a McGovern biography.
"Your father gave courage to people who didn't have the courage to speak up, to finally stand up," Biden said Thursday night. "Your father stood there and took all that beating. Your father was characterized by these right wing guys as a coward and a lily liver. Your father was a genuine hero."
McGovern was a mentor to many Democrats. His 1972 campaign workers included former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The son of a Methodist minister, McGovern was a fierce advocate in the fight against world hunger who continued to give speeches and write until shortly before his death. He represented South Dakota in the U.S. Senate from 1963 to 1981.
McGovern's legacy stretches well beyond his terms in Congress and presidential bids to include the fight against world hunger, AIDS and other social issues.
McGovern's funeral was set for 1 p.m. at the Mary Sommervold Hall in the Washington Pavilion of Arts and Science in Sioux Falls. He will be buried later at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., in a private family service.
(Reporting by David Bailey; Editing by Vicki Allen)