- The Washington Times - Friday, September 14, 2007

Effi Barry’s 63-year life was one lived listening to awestruck whispers, whispers she graciously endured.

People whispered about her parentage. People whispered about her husband. People whispered about her son. People whispered about the leukemia they thought would strip her of her trademark dignity.

Always, however, the District’s former first lady dutifully returned the tongue-wagging with a serene smile and polite nod.

The only time the world witnessed the erect and elegant Mrs. Barry become slightly unglued was that infamous night in 1990 that her husband, Marion Barry, then serving his third term as mayor, was arrested during an FBI sting that caught him smoking cocaine in the Vista Hotel.

Who can forget that heart-wrenching image of a harried mother shepherding her young son, wrapped head-to-toe in a wool blanket, into the getaway car of a friend as she tried valiantly to shield him from the glaring lights of cameras and reporters she could not ignore?

Before that moment that she later admitted was her darkest hour, far too many people in the District incorrectly dismissed the statuesque Effi Barry as stoic, stuck-up and self-centered.

Those were the people who really didn’t know her. Effi Barry was nothing if not approachable, kind and caring, as D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton remembered on the day of her death. Mrs. Norton said that everyone looked at Effi and whispered, “oh, wow!” More importantly, this shy, extremely private woman took her public role more seriously than most, including her predecessors and successors as first lady of the city.

I’d bet the D.C. budget that if she had her druthers, Mrs. Barry would prefer to stay in the background even in death. But she would willingly acquiesce, as she did in life, to her public duty and allow herself to be thrust onto center stage for a final curtsy.

D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty declared today as Effi Barry Day as she is eulogized to the rafters of the cavernous Washington National Cathedral during her funeral and tribute. The public acknowledgement and celebration of her life, of her courageous contributions to this city, are overdue.

As some are whispering even as she is laid to rest, it’s too bad that Mrs. Barry went unappreciated for so long. Duty to city, honor to self and family, but most of all courage in the face of adversity, is what D.C. residents should remember most about her.

When all else was going haywire — when the District was the butt of late-night jokes; when the city’s unbearable image was that of a hazy crack pipe held handto-mouth — there was Effi Barry.

This beautiful black woman, impeccable in dress and manner, epitomized all the intelligence, strength, class and courage that once represented the pride and promise of those who prospered and flocked to this former black mecca on the Potomac.

Whisper what you want, the way she held her head high above the fray provided D.C. residents a much-needed touchstone, a lifeline to counter the critics determined to present a one-sided view of the District based on the bad judgment of a single man — her husband.

Yesterday, D.C. Council member Jack Evans rightly described her as “a daughter of the District.” Where are the Effi Barrys now, trained in social graces to be ladylike, when misguided young women need a positive role model more than ever? But as long as I knew Effi Barry, having covered her movement and projects ever since she came on the scene, one question remained uppermost in my mind — how did she do it? How did she maintain such poise during such public humiliation? Frankly, how could she continue to support Mr. Barry through good times and bad? She was no fool nor was she delusional. She, like a lot of wives, tried to keep the peace and her family together. She said she accepted Mr. Barry with all his flaws, as he did her. In fact, she admirably told friends that she was proud to be associated with a man whom she characterized as was one of the greatest politicians in the country.

Mrs. Barry was thankful that being his wife and the District’s first lady allowed her to put into practice the Christian tenets of service to others.

A friend of hers, Laura Ross Brown of Alexandria, said that Effi continued to support Marion because his legacy was their now 27-year-old son Christopher’s legacy and she always wanted Mr. Barry to do well in whatever he tried.

About a year ago during an unexpected encounter in the Detroit airport, I told Effi just how much I admired her beauty and courage in the face of fire. Both of us had been visiting with dear friends during the Labor Day weekend. We talked about the need to slow down and do a few fun things. She joked about running into an old high school beau during a reunion in her native Toledo, Ohio.

Of course, we mentioned you-know-who. Mostly, we discussed her illness. She was upbeat and told me she was in remission. She pointed out how grateful she was to have so many helpful and devoted friends around her.

Happily, I remember that Effi’s trademark serenity was infectious. I took solace from her. She clearly had made her peace with her destiny, I assume, as she did all her remarkable life spent listening and gaining strength and courage from those awestruck whispers. Wow.

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