- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2006

When my daughter, Misti, was locked out of the house two weeks ago, she did what we always do: walk across the street to get our house keys from Uncle James.

But Uncle James did not answer the door. That is when it really smacked us in the face that he was not long for this world.

Our beloved Uncle James, 78, died a week ago today at Inova Alexandria Hospital after five tense days in the intensive-care unit.

Along with his daughter, Brenda, and his sister, Constance Yvonne, we prayed, cried and hoped against the odds while a steady stream of relatives, friends and co-workers came to say their silent goodbyes at the hospital, where he was employed for 48 years. His health had been deteriorating daily from the debilitating side effects of untreatable cancer.

Few words can truly describe James William Terrell, aka J.T. He also was known as “the Mayor” to many in his Alexandria neighborhood where he sat, cross-legged, in front of his home like a sentinel on post.

Popular, gregarious and sometimes cantankerous, he touched so many lives, especially fledglings finding their way around the hospital.

The Rev. Donald C. Hayes, pastor of the Oakland Baptist Church and lieutenant with the Alexandria Police Department, remembered meeting Uncle James as a rookie cop 25 years ago. He said James took him by the hand and introduced him to a lot of the hospital personnel. They included the workers in the cafeteria, “who he said would give me a discount.” More importantly, “they would fix me a plate of real food; not the stuff they serve out front.”

When Lt. Hayes prayed with us standing around Uncle James’ deathbed, he said, “This [passing] is not only a family loss, but a loss for this hospital, this community and the whole city of Alexandria.”

Born in Alexandria on Sept. 16, 1928, he was the eldest surviving son of Jacob and Beatrice Terrell and the key player in our family since his parents’ deaths decades ago.

J.T. went to work at Alexandria Hospital as a teenager in 1944. He was hired as a janitor, worked his way up to become an orderly and was an emergency-room technician by the time he retired in 1992. But Uncle James was so adept and knowledgeable in the medical field that he often referred to himself as “the first black doctor on the hill” — Seminary Hill, that is, where the hospital moved from its original location in Old Town.

“When I first met James, I thought he was a doctor; that’s the way he carried himself,” Lt. Hayes said. An undated article in the hospital’s newsletter said that although the hospital had seen many changes, “one thing that has not changed is [James’] commitment to his work and his unwavering dedication to ‘helping people.’ He doesn’t like to be praised for his special qualities since James firmly believes he was put on this earth ‘to help the sick.’ However, there have been many times that he has shown extra courtesy and helpfulness to patients and other guests.”

He carried the examples of helping people to his family. He was always available to his siblings. To his nieces and especially his nephews, he was a father figure, always offering loving parental supervision, as well as a stern scolding.

“The only reason anyone should be walking across the grass is if you have a lawn mower behind you,” he’d said many times, as Cuzin Nichelle Terrell reminded us during his funeral at Oakland Baptist on Sunday night.

He set me on a path toward independence and nonconformity.

Uncle James was famous for taking all of us on joyrides, either alone or piled up in the back seat of his car. Once, when he was driving around Southwest on an errand for my mother, I panicked and shouted at him that he was going the wrong way on a one-way street. “Don’t worry, A; I ain’t going but one way,” he said and chuckled.

In other words, just because everybody else is going one way doesn’t mean you have to follow. In fact, if they are going left, then you go right.

From the oldest to the youngest, we were taught to respect and care for people and property — and to talk trash.

And could he talk. He loved nothing more than keeping up with and disseminating the latest community news and was often seen walking around with two telephones, one in his hand, the other in his back pocket.

“The Mayor” kept an ever-watchful eye over young and old in the neighborhood, which has experienced little crime. In retirement, he regularly drove elderly women to doctor’s appointments and errands and waited for them.

His signature sun tea was good for whatever ailed you. Nearly every day, he set out a big glass jar on a concrete brick in the yard and let the tea bags brew naturally for hours.

J.T. was also noted for his dapper dress, always sporting stylish clothes, shoes and caps. Even though he was a weak patient, he was able to attend the anniversary party for the hospital’s emergency department two weeks ago. The doting nurses, who were his former co-workers, dressed him in a white turtleneck, a doctor’s coat and scrubs. Later that night, he was rushed to ICU.

Uncle James rededicated himself to the Oakland Baptist Church several weeks before his death, but he lived the principles of Christianity in his daily acts of kindness.

Every family and every community needs an Uncle James. Though we were blessed to have him, we surely will not be the same without ours.

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