BUTTE (AP) – Motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel was remembered Monday as an American icon who donned red, white and blue as he defied death more than once and who, later in life, took a spiritual leap of faith.
A few thousand people gathered in Knievel’s hometown of Butte for his funeral, including former heavyweight boxing champ Joe Frazier and actor Matthew McConaughey. Many recalled his fearless spirit and his ability to make people around the world hold their breath as he soared across the sky.
“He’s forever in flight now. He doesn’t have to come back down, he doesn’t have to land,” said McConaughey, who became friends with Knievel and hosted a History Channel program on the stuntman.
“He’s in that spot of grace, for the rest of time,” McConaughey said.
The Rev. Robert H. Schuller of California’s Crystal Cathedral officiated the service and talked about Knievel’s baptism earlier this year. He noted Knievel had recently made a change to an inscription on his tombstone, under the heading “Words to live for.”
“Heaven will rejoice that he wrote the last words to his life and was standing next to You when he wrote them: ‘Believe in Jesus Christ,'” Schuller told the crowd.
Robbie Knievel, who followed his father into the family business, recalled hunting and fishing trips as a child and disputed claims by some that he had eclipsed Evel in the world of extreme sports.
“I am not the greatest daredevil in the world. I am the son of the greatest daredevil in the world,” Robbie Knievel said.
Before the service, hundreds of mourners filed past the open casket to pay their respects to Evel Knievel, clad in a white leather jacket with red and blue trim. Photos rested on easels nearby, as images of Knievel on his motorcycle appeared on a large screen above. A mix of country music and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” played in the background.
“There’s only a few people that you can say a name anywhere in the world and you know who he is,” said Butte resident Jim Richards, who was among those at the public viewing.
Also attending was Butte resident Nicola Voss who said she let her two children, ages 10 and 13, miss school for an important moment in history.
“We’re trying to teach them the lesson of thinking outside the box. He’s from a small town — Butte, America — and look at where he got,” Voss said.
After the service, a hearse carried Knievel’s body along Evel Knievel Loop, a six-mile route through town. A private burial was planned later in Butte.
Knievel died Nov. 30 in Clearwater, Fla., after years of failing health.
On Sunday night, fireworks illuminated the night sky with bursts of red, white and blue when a hearse carrying Knievel’s body arrived at the Butte Civic Center, the town’s largest indoor venue.
Over the years, Knievel returned often to his hometown, an industrial city with a large Irish influence. Some 35,000 people live in Butte, which has seen a recent resurgence after its early boom-and-bust history.
The town’s annual Evel Knievel Days festival draws tens of thousands to the city. Knievel frequently attended, though as a frail man who’d lived through too many motorcycle crashes and other ordeals, including a liver transplant.
“He was right up there with Elvis and Sinatra,” said Butte resident George Riojas.
Riojas said he admired Knievel’s ability to maintain an enduring image even when “we’re always itching for a new face,” and his loyalty to his hometown long after he moved away.
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