- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

It was another blustery cold Tuesday in January when 20,000 mourners spent hours standing on the ice-covered pavement outside the Union Wesley AME Church to pay their last respects to a beloved homeboy, who was as symbolic of “the other Washington” as the Howard Theater.

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years since Ralph “Petey” Greene Jr., the fast-living trash-talking commentator and comedian who dominated the D.C. airwaves for decades, died of cancer on Jan. 15, 1984, at the ripe old age of 53.

This week, biographer Lurma Rackley brings Petey back to life with her newly released book of his memoirs, “Laugh If You Like, Ain’t a Damn Thing Funny,” that will be featured on several local broadcast stations.

“He was an important D.C. treasure,” said Maudine Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League, which is co-sponsoring with Sisterspace and Books a book signing and tribute to Mr. Greene at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Masonic Temple, 1000 U St. NW.

It is expected to be a Washington homecoming for many of Mr. Greene’s friends and former co-workers at United Planning Organization; a satellite office is now named the Petey Greene Center in honor of his days as a community advocate for seniors and young people.

“[Petey] was in a class by himself, because he came from deep poverty, he was able to talk to poor people in a way no else could,” Miss Rackley said.

One of his passions was seeing poor people play a role in uplifting themselves, and he pushed them to register to vote, to go to PTA meeting to support their children, to engage in job training. He took his role as a community advocate at the UPO seriously and used his platform as a broadcaster to represent people he felt the establishment left out, Miss Rackley said.

But he did it all with humor on his widely popular radio shows on WYCB, WUST, WOL and his Emmy Award-winning television show, “Petey Greene’s Washington.” At heart, he always wanted to be the center of attention by making people laugh.

A caution: This is not a book for children or prudes, as Miss Rackley stays true to Mr. Greene’s ribald story and raw language.

Miss Rackley, a Washington Star reporter whom Mr. Greene asked to write his biography, served as press secretary to former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry in 1989 and 1990. She is working as public relations director of the humanitarian organization CARE, headquartered in Atlanta.

Reading the book is as much a history lesson about black life in the District as it is Petey’s personal story as a black man struggling to survive in a segregationist era.

And, as much as it is a book about a winning local personality who made good, it is a universal story about triumph over adversity. Underpinning the entire tale is the loving relationship he had with his grandmother, Maggie “A’nt Pig” Floyd, who raised him from infancy and steered him to a straighter path.

Follow the young Petey through his mischievous childhood in the back alleys of Foggy Bottom and Georgetown to his military service in Korea to his days “stylin’ and profilin’” on U Street during Washington’s era as the black entertainment mecca. Go down with him to becoming “a wine head bum,” to his prison time in Lorton Reformatory where he schmoozed with the guards to get special privileges and positions.

Come back up with him when he became a popular talk-show host with fans including Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey and former Maryland congressman Michael Barnes.

Along the way, you share in his antics and achievements with well-known Washington personalities such as Walter Fauntroy, Bobbie Hooks, Ed Murphy, Dewey Hughes and Herman Washington and a host of others like his UPO co-workers Frank Hollis and Chuck Ramsey.

“You can’t compare anybody to him, people really felt Petey,” said Mr. Ramsey, who was present for many adventures with Mr. Greene, including once when he talked a man out of jumping from a downtown building.

From 1931 to 1984 you see Washington from the eyes of someone from the “other Washington” far separate and apart from the monuments of the nation’s capital.

Even today, the mere mention of Petey Greene’s name elicits raucous tales of the way he personally changed their lives. One chapter is devoted to the commencement address he delivered at Constitution Hall after the petitions and insistence of white students at Walt Whitman High School overcame some of their parents’ objections.

Petey Greene’s commentaries taught his audience that they had a role in their own power. He told them to register to vote. He always spoke out about pretentiousness, especially among the black middle class.

“Laugh If You Like, Ain’t a Damn Thing Funny” is a good book about history. It’s a good book for humor. It’s a good book for inspiration about how the power of love helps you overcome hurdles because he overcame them all.

Lastly, it’s a good book to warm up with on a cold January day.

For more information about the book and Saturday’s tribute, contact Sisterspace and Books at 202/332-3433.

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