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The InTowner
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Marion S. Barry, Jr., 1936 – 2014

After the many days and countless well-deserved expressions of praise for the unique individual we all came to know –- thanks to the Washington City Paper many years ago –- as “Mayor for Life,” this writer wondered what more I might be able to add.

After all, I was not close to Marion Barry, nor did I ever work for him other than very indirectly during his first mayoral term as a member of the then Board of Appeals and Review.

Notwithstanding, however, as publisher of one of the city’s oldest community newspapers I did have the opportunity occasionally to get swept into his orbit –- and what a delight those times were!

I found Marion Barry not only to be dedicated to the cause of making life better for us citizens –- he took his mayoral responsibilities very seriously indeed –- but when in his presence realized what a truly nice and genuinely friendly person he was. He treated me –- hardly one of DC’s “A List” journalists — with respect and understanding that I and others like myself who were reporting for the neighborhood newspapers were accorded full cooperation and access for the simple reason, as he once said to me, that through the community press he was able to better understand the “pulse” of the neighborhoods and the concerns of the residents.

And these were not just words to make me feel “important” –- he followed through with an initiative that no other mayor since has chosen to follow: his off-the-record informal monthly breakfasts for those of us reporting for the community publications –- the Big Boys were not included; he did not want them dominating (as they are wont to do) those sessions held in the spacious Mayor’s conference room.

These were indeed very informal gatherings where he made it very clear that we should feel free to ask any questions, raise any issues, drill down on policy decisions, and more. We always honored the no-note taking stipulation (this was before easily concealed iPhones!) and he always honored his commitment to be open and responsive. I can recall many instances when one or more of us would toss out ideas for improving services or modifying policy and never once did he respond with the typical bureaucratic “it’s never been done that way before” or “it can’t be done” or responses of similar import. He was the kind of leader who was interested in hearing of new ideas or exploring new ways for solving problems.

Maybe this side of Marion Barry can be explained by simply taking note of the fact that he was highly intelligent. Of course people have always understood that he was, as they say, “street smart”; he was, as everyone well knew, the consummate politician –- and in a genuinely good way. But he was also a very smart man. How many people know that he earned a Masters of Science degree in organic chemistry from Fisk University? But unlike a few other major city leaders of the day, he never lorded it over people that he was a true “brain”; he seemingly kept that skill set for his own private use in grappling with difficult civic and social issues requiring solutions.

So it was, at least from the perspective of this writer, that his success was due to his genuine desire to help right wrongs but also a dogged, scientist-like determination to understand cause and effect and derive solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Now, this is only what I feel qualified to share. Yet there was so much more that others who were far more directly impacted by his presence can attest, and so we conclude by quoting Darryl Green, U Street’s Islander Restaurant owner, native Washingtonian and very longtime friend of Barry:

“The sudden death of Marion Barry has devastated many of the long time supporters, residents of the District of Columbia and countless others that have had their lives immensely impacted by the Former Mayor and the many programs and services that he introduced to Washington DC. The love and support that he has given to the residents of the city and the dedication to the progress of the development of the Nations Capitol will never be forgotten.”