BEDFORD - Dick Hess, the Republican state representative who served Bedford County for more than 26 years, died Friday at a Pittsburgh hospital from complications related to leg surgery.
Colleagues said Hess, 74, died at UPMC Shadyside hospital surrounded by family.
The 10th most senior of the House's 203 members, Hess chaired the powerful Transportation Committee and worked ceaselessly to turn state policy to his district's favor, colleagues and constituents said Friday.
"He didn't have to do what he did for us," said Harry Biddle, 67, a Bedford military veteran who recalled Hess' efforts to secure for fellow county vets the benefits they deserved. "He was like an old friend. A nice guy."
Hess died less than three weeks before he was set to return to Harrisburg for the fall legislative session.
He had appeared frequently in Capitol news in recent months.
As the representative most responsible for transportation, Hess had promised to redouble his efforts to pass a transportation funding bill before the season's end.
"He had the wisdom and knowledge that comes with experience," Kirt Morris, Bedford County commissioners chairman, said Friday. "He was entrenched in Bedford County politics."
Hess had breezed to victory in the last several elections, often securing both the Republican and Democratic nominations and "running against himself," Morris said.
He won his first House race in 1986 after working as Bedford County prothonotary, clerk of courts and chief clerk.
He headed the House Commerce Committee before taking the reins of the Transportation Committee.
"Dick Hess was a champion of economic progress, moral values and individual rights - principles he represented unfailingly in his 26 years in the General Assembly," Gov. Tom Corbett said in a written statement. "In both his role as chairman of the House Commerce Committee and, this session, chairing the House Transportation Committee, Dick placed the economic well-being of Pennsylvania's citizens foremost."
Voters in Bedford express concerns that Hess' successor, set to be chosen in a special election in the next few months, won't serve their county as personally as Hess had.
He'd been instrumental in securing government grants for the county's industrial centers, Morris said, and spoke as a much-needed rural voice on transportation issues.
"Dick did fight for his people. If there were funds available for projects, he fought to bring them here," he said.
Hess' death spurred a flood of condolences from colleagues in the General Assembly, who remembered the veteran legislator as a warm, genuine figure through his quarter-century in office.
"He will be remembered for many contributions, but most importantly for his friendly smile, open handshake and stories about his grandchildren," state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-Blair, said.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1938, Hess graduated from Saxton Liberty High School. He is survived by his wife, Shirley; his son, Jeff, and daughter-in-law Lizette; and three grandchildren.
Hess was an active member of the Bedford United Methodist Church. A legislative biography sports more than a dozen club and fraternal memberships, including a lifetime position in the Saxton Volunteer Fire Company and a seat on the UPMC Bedford Memorial Board of Trustees.
On Friday, Corbett ordered state flags flown at half-staff until the evening of Hess' funeral, scheduled for Tuesday.
Friends, colleagues and voters said they were surprised to hear of the representative's ill health. He had appeared at several hearings and public events in recent weeks, including an Aug. 1 legislative panel in Osterburg.
Complications from a recent leg operation caused his condition to deteriorate during the past two weeks, a spokesman said.
At time he fell ill, Hess had been preparing for the second round of transportation debate after a summer funding bill failed to survive the General Assembly. A central figure in the issue, Hess placed himself between Democrats and more extreme Republicans to press for a reasonable bill, he said after the Aug. 1 panel.
"His presence and the honorable approach he brought to the efforts to address the issues facing Pennsylvania will be sorely missed," colleague Mark Gillen, R-Mohnton, said Friday.
And his connections and experience won't easily be replaced, Bedford County Commissioner Paul Crooks, a Democrat, said.
"If you talk to people in the county, he was always the go-to person to get things taken care of," Crooks said. "He was Bedford County."
Friends will be received from 1 to 3 and 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at the Timothy A. Berkebile Funeral Home, 214 S. Juliana St., Bedford, and from 10 a.m. until the 2 p.m. service Tuesday at Akers Funeral Chapel, 715 Church St., Saxton. Burial will be at Grandview Cemetery in Saxton. A full obituary will be in Sunday's Mirror.