COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Representative Joe Neal (D- Richland), died suddenly Tuesday night at the age of 66. On Wednesday morning, his colleagues in the South Carolina House of Representatives to grieve the loss and remembered the man he was.
It was a solemn morning on Wednesday. Representatives say there's a void in their body, with Neal's passing. They remember him as a 'gentle giant'. A black drape and white flower marked his empty desk and seat in the House.
"I mean, we sat here together 23 years. I knew him. We had a lot of conversations," Neal's former desk-mate, Representative Leon Howard (D- Richland) said.
Representative Leon Howard says he spent time with the Neal family in the hospital last night, but the reality of Neal's passing didn't sink in until Howard took his seat beside the empty chair.
"When I walked into the chamber and saw this section draped, it was tough man. It was a very emotional moment. You know, talking about it and not being here, it's like it's not real. But when you walk in, you see this, this…then you know it's real and finality, reality sets in," Howard said.
A line of representatives signed the day calendar to give to Neal's family. Speaker of the House, Jay Lucas, said Neal raised a hand to have the last word of any debate and usually calmed members with his words.
RELATED: See photos of Rep. Joel Neal's desk in the State House.
"Even when we had heated debates, he would compose himself just like he would if he was behind the pulpit," Howard said.
He's remembered as being a compassionate pastor, too, to a church in Chester.
"He would go his last mile to make sure that someone else is taken care of," Representative Carl Anderson (D- Georgetown) said.
While in office, Neal secured funding for HIV and AIDS causes, fought to expand Medicaid, and spoke passionately for removing the Confederate flag from the State House grounds.
"That flag that stands outside has stood as a thumb in the eye of those families in Charleston who lost loved ones. And we all know it. And the response that this body should give is a moment of grace to those families," Neal said in 2015.
His official cause of death has not been released. But Rep. Carl Anderson says Neal had not felt well while preaching on Sunday and was absent from House meetings Tuesday.