NEWARK, N.J. — Days before U.S. Rep. Donald Payne died of cancer, it wasn’t the phone calls of encouragement from presidents that cheered him. It was when a Washington hospital orderly recognized the New Jersey congressman as the only U.S. official to visit his village in the African nation of Eritrea.

Hearing from the orderly how much the visit had meant, and knowing he had made a difference in the lives of people struggling against violence and poverty — from his native Newark, N.J., to sub-Saharan Africa — was the reason why Donald Payne had dedicated his life to public service, his brother William said Tuesday.

“He walked with kings, but never lost the common touch,” William Payne said.

Donald Payne, the first black congressional member from New Jersey, died March 6 at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, N.J. He was 77.

The 12-term member of the House had announced in February that he was undergoing treatment for colon cancer and would continue to represent his district. He was flown home to New Jersey on Friday from Georgetown University Hospital as his health took a sudden turn for the worse.

He was first elected in 1988 after twice losing to former Rep. Peter Rodino, who retired after 40 years in Congress.

Payne, often considered one of the most progressive Democrats in the state’s delegation, was elected to a 12th term in 2010. He represented the 10th District, which includes the city of Newark and parts of Essex, Hudson and Union counties.

In Washington, he was remembered for his work as a defender of human rights, both at home and abroad.

President Barack Obama, who ordered flags lowered in Payne’s honor, called him a “leader in US-Africa policy, making enormous contributions towards helping restore democracy and human rights across the continent.”

Payne was a member of House committees on education and foreign affairs. He served as chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, and had traveled many times to the continent on foreign affairs matters.

He was remembered Tuesday as one of the first U.S. officials to speak out on the situation in Darfur and South Sudan.

“He was fearless in describing what was happening to people; he didn’t mince words;” said Faith McDonnell, a member of the Act for Sudan coalition who worked with Payne on issues in the region.

During an April 2009 trip, mortar shells were fired toward Mogadishu airport as a plane carrying Payne took off safely from the Somali capital. Officials at the time said 19 civilians were injured in residential areas. Payne had met with Somalia’s president and prime minister during his one-day visit to Mogadishu to discuss piracy, security and cooperation between Somalia and the United States.

He also had been the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a congressional delegate to the United Nations.

At home, he was remembered as a trailblazer for African-Americans, as an advocate for the underprivileged, and as a gentleman.

Born and raised in Newark, Payne came up through the ranks of Essex County politics. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Seton Hall University in 1957 and taught in Newark schools for 15 years. He went on to become an insurance executive and member of the Newark City Council from 1982 until 1988.

It was his work with the YMCA — starting as a young volunteer at a segregated storefront office in Newark and rising to become the president of the national organization — that opened his eyes to the wider world, according to his brother.

Payne was a widower with three children and four grandchildren. His son, Donald Payne Jr., is a Newark city councilman. Services haven’t been announced.

While Payne faced the prospect of a primary challenge from Newark Councilman Ronald C. Rice, his death will open the field in the heavily Democratic district.

Gov. Chris Christie’s office said Tuesday that out of deference to the congressman and his family they would not discuss whether the governor would fill the seat immediately, or let it stand vacant until a special election can be held, which has typically been done.

A public plaza between two government buildings in Newark now bears Payne’s name in tribute to his long career in public service.

Associated Press writer Andrew Miga in Washington contributed to this report.