So they came to Bicentennial Plaza to pay their respects to a public servant they called a pioneer for women in politics.
"Our state is a much better place because of the life, the legacy of our dear friend Kay Hagan," said North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin who served with Hagan in the General Assembly.
Amid all the hugs and candles lit in Hagan's memory, the crowd first remembered her time here in Raleigh. She was first elected as a state senator in 1998. She rose all the way to chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
"She got their first and she paved the way for so many women who followed and were inspired by her example," said former State Senator Deborah Ross.
One of those women is Gina Cruz.
"I jumped at the chance to join Senator Hagan's re-election campaign," Cruz told the crowd.
Cruz, now the co-founder of a Raleigh political consulting firm, was a bright-eyed recent college grad when she joined in Hagan's U.S. Senate campaign. She said she was inspired by Hagan's long-shot 2008 bid to unseat Republican Elizabeth Dole. Hagan won.
Cruz and the others celebrated Hagan's service in Washington as a fierce advocate for women's rights and her politically consequential vote in 2013 -- in favor of the contentious Affordable Care Act.
"She was the deciding vote on the Affordable Care Act which was a real a big deal," Cruz said. "She saved millions of people's lives by casting that vote."
Also holding a candle at the memorial was Hagan's only son, Tilden, who shared a story about the three years his mom spent fighting complications of a very rare type of encephalitis -- a brain inflammation transmitted to humans by ticks.
Tilden Hagan said his mother as a patient was the same as she was as a politician -- rejecting the formalities of public office -- No Senator Hagan, no Mrs. Hagan, just kay.
"So we made a big sign because she was no longer able to speak and it was posted over her bed. It went from hospital to hospital with her and the rehab facility with her. And it just said, call me Kay," he said.
The Powassan virus which ultimately proved fatal to Kay Hagan is extremely rare. Just six cases were reported in 2015. It jumped up to 33 in 2017.
Hagan's husband thinks she picked up a tick while they were hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
There's no known treatment or vaccine and Senator Hagan had largely stayed out of the public eye since her diagnosis.