Outpourings of tributes and tears mark image-rich memorial for Arthur Ashe

February 11, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

RICHMOND, Va. -- The images were indelible:

The 6-year-old girl named Camera, a white ribbon in her hair, being led by a friend through the quiet sports arena as mourners paid homage to her father, Arthur Ashe.

A dreadlocked tennis star from France, Yannick Noah, swathed in black leather, hands locked together in prayer, head bowed, tears streaming down his cheeks.

And the mahogany coffin, draped with red roses and baby's breath and topped by two white paper doves tied together with a red ribbon, the symbol of the fight against AIDS.

Yesterday, in a gymnasium that bears his name, 6,000 mourners remembered Mr. Ashe as a tennis champion who transcended sports, an American who shattered racial and social barriers and a native son who was returned home after dying of AIDS-related pneumonia at 49.

But his life and times could not be so easily explained or celebrated during three hours of music, poetry and remembrance. The songs included "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "I'll Fly Away."

The images spoke loudest, of course. And yet speaker after speaker -- 23 in all, including six pastors, two mayors, a governor, and a presidential representative -- tried to sum up a man who melded the worlds of the athletic, the political and the spiritual.

There was talk of winning Wimbledon and freeing South Africa, of claiming a U.S. Open title and demanding that U.S. borders be opened to Haitian refugees, of serving aces and reading Scripture.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson compared Mr. Ashe to other athletic pioneers, Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, and declared: "His dignity was non-negotiable."

U.S. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown spoke of his admiration for Mr. Ashe: "A beautiful black man in beautiful white clothes playing a beautiful and utterly white game -- and winning."

The mayor of New York, David Dinkins, wiped his brow and declared with passion and a touch of anger: "In our age of hype and handlers, the coinage of greatness has been devalued, but let me say it as plain as I can: Arthur Ashe was just plain better than most of us."

U.S. Sens. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., and Chuck Robb, D-Va., were there. So were more than a dozen of Mr. Ashe's tennis contemporaries.

Stan Smith, composed and earnest while playing with Mr. Ashe in the Davis Cup, cried when he said, "I'm proud to be his friend and . . . he's my hero."

The crowd cheered when Mr. Ashe was posthumously presented with the Olympic Order. There were cheers again when a letter from President Clinton was read.

Through it all, Mr. Ashe's wife, Jeanne, sat composed, surrounded by family and friends.

Finally, the family headed to Woodland Cemetery in northern Richmond. There, Mr. Ashe was buried next to his mother, Mattie.

"Arthur Ashe," said the Rev. Jeff Rogers. "No. 1."

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