Memorial Day in DC: Death Takes a Holiday

Harold BellContributor IIIJune 9, 2009

On Memorial Day America took time out to honor its dead.  There were parades, tributes and salutes to our fallen heroes of war.  Family, friends and loved ones traveled from all over the country to Washington, DC. 

In his first Memorial Day address at Arlington National Cemetery as commander in chief, President Barack Obama vowed to support soldiers at War and at Home. 

The Greenbelt Regional Park is located in Prince Georges County, Maryland just off of the Baltimore/Washington Parkway. 

The parkway is a main thoroughfare that brought thousands into DC for the weekend Memorial Day tributes.  They arrived by car, bus, truck and more motorcycles then you could ever count.

On Saturday the Greenbelt Regional Park hosted a picnic for native Washingtonians, friends and loved ones who were still among the living.  Memorial Day was a special day for many of us.

The picnic was the brainchild of Roy ‘Monk’ Wilkins, Everett ‘Doc’ Payne and Byron Kirkley.  The former athletes from Spingarn High School in DC said “Enough is enough.”

They decided having re-unions at the areas’ funeral homes was not a good place to meet and greet and re-connect.  The recent funerals of Spingarn basketball coach William ‘Doc’ Robinson, Spingarn Principal James Campbell, and Cardozo basketball coach and legendary educator, Frank Bolden convinced the three there were better places to have re-unions.

There were some of us who had become ‘Professional Funeral Goers’ and some were spending more time reading the obituary pages then the sports pages.

They promoted and marketed the picnic by word of mouth invitations with e-mails arriving as late as the day of the picnic.  The invitations made sure everyone was aware that it was a BYOL outing. 

I packed a Brown Bag lunch (chicken sandwich, potatoes chips, candy bar and frozen bottles of water and tea) and headed out to Greenbelt Region Park.

I left home on Saturday not knowing what to expect but it was a bright sun shiny day.  It was a perfect day for a picnic.

When I drove into the park the first one I saw was my long time friend Skippy Pace with his friend Joe Gordon.  Skippy is a Spingarn alumnus (class of '57).  I was barely out the car good and the tales started to flow about “The Good Old Days.”

I was surprised by the turnout (75-100) shown up for this last minute gathering.

Even though we were asked to bring our own food and beverage of choice there was plenty of food and drink.  Brother Bay Freeman took charge of the grill and made sure everyone got something to eat.  Lester Lewis brought enough chicken and potato salad to feed several people.

An outing like this would be incomplete without our music (50s and 60s).  DC legend of “Oldies but Goodies” and Spingarn alumnus Larry Bridgeforth took us up and down memory lane.  It was a great ride.

The topics of conversation ranged from sports to politics:

*President Barack Obama (BLACK & PROUD)


*NBA Play-Offs (WOW)

*John Thompson (DC's BIGGEST FRAUD)

*Where are they now (FRIENDS, FAMILY & ATHLETES)

Those topics would be our theme songs until darkness suggested it was time to head home and back to the real World. 

There were those in attendance who were legends in their own time and those who were legends in their own mind.  We sit down in different groups and eventually made the rounds to visit others. 

There were alumni participants from Armstong, McKinley Tech, Cardozo and Spingarn high schools.  NFL Hall of Fame and Armstrong legendary athlete Willie Wood made a surprise visit. 

Willie is in a nursing home and confined to a wheelchair.  He suffers from dementia (memory goes and comes). 

He stayed for a couple of hours and took pictures.  Everyone enjoyed his visit and by his frequent smiles it really looked like he enjoyed himself.

Herman Thomas another Armstong alumnus and legendary athlete was also in attendance. 

We spend most of our time talking about Willie and the great running back Red Mike Hagler.  Herman was on the receiving end of many of Willie’s passes on the 53 and 54 championship football teams. 

Red Mike went to Iowa and played in the Rose Bowl.  Herman remembers his first encounter with the great Elgin Baylor and how he took him to school on the basketball court.

There were other legitimate playground legends with their own stories, Sandy Freeman (Phelps), Ollie Johnson (Spingarn, former No. 1 pick Boston Celtics), Ronald Horton (Spingarn), Roy “Monk” Wilkins (Spingarn), George Deal (Armstrong), Dehart Morgan (Armstrong), Rip Scott (Cardozo), Lester Lewis (Cardozo) Walter Blouse (Dunbar), Johnny Jones (Dunbar, former Boston Celtic), Bob Headen (Cardozo) Frank Harrison (Cardozo) and Donnie Christian (McKinley Tech). 

The Mayo brothers, Charlie, Melvin and Vernonall outstanding athletes (Spingarn) were in attendance.  Memorial Day is special to them as they remember their parents and brothers Bill and Al.

The husband and wife team of Keith (McKinley Tech) and Dottie (Cardozo) Wade were also in the house. 

Community icon and the unofficial Mayor of DC Bobby Harper (Cardozo) was there making the rounds.  This was also a very emotional Memorial Day for him as he remembers his daughter and her two children.

There is not enough space or time to mention all the guys who were legends in their own mind in attendance (smile), Joe Wood (Spingarn), Oscar Phillips (Anacostia), Doc Payne (Spingarn), Medell Ford (Spingarn), Kenny Weaver (Spingarn), Michael “Crip” Sullivan (Spingarn), our New Jersey friend Eric Hughes and all the ladies who were there and supported this Memorial Day outing.

My Memorial Day thoughts went to my only brother Earl (Spingarn) a U.S. Army veteran who is confined to a wheelchair in the VA Hospital in Richmond, Va.

My two brothers that I lost last year, Bobby and William and my heroes Mattie Bell (mom) and Amy Tyler Bell (Grandma).

We ended the evening wishing everyone the very best and saying “See you soon,” God bless America and our hometown of Washington, DC. 

What a great way to spend an evening and a Memorial Day weekend.  This Memorial Day picnic beats meeting at a funeral home any day.


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