Smiles flow in celebration of Reggie's life


August 08, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

As people filtered out from the crowded auditorium into the hazy, light-gray afternoon, smiles far outnumbering tears, there was Reggie Lewis' brother on the sidewalk in front of Dunbar High School.

"This day," Irvin Lewis Jr. was saying, "was for the family. The funeral up in Boston, that was incredible, but so many people in the family couldn't afford to go. Reggie died so suddenly, you know, and we had just had a family reunion, and . . . "

His voice trailed off. Around him were cousins, aunts and uncles, dozens of people who shared blood with Reggie Lewis.

". . . my brother was all about family, you know," Irvin Lewis was saying. "He stressed it so much. He would have wanted this day. I know that. He wouldn't have wanted it any other way than this."

Happy. Vibrant. Almost joyful. A memorial service for family and friends to gather and celebrate a fabulous life, not mourn a stunning death.

If any tears were shed during the two-hour program, they were quiet, private tears. It was not the afternoon for that. Lewis' mother, Inez "Peggy" Ritch, wore a resplendent white suit. Her decision to eschew funereal black was symbolic.

"This was for people to remember Reggie the way he was," said his uncle, local boxing manager Mack Lewis. "A kid who had a positive effect on so many."

When Lewis was buried Monday in Boston, 7,000 people packed into a college gym, the service was shown live on local TV and thousands lined the streets to the cemetery. It was an astonishment, a grieving so intense and public that, as Lewis' college coach, Jim Calhoun, said yesterday, "I've lived in Boston 50 years and never saw anything like it, nor will I see anything like it again."

If Lewis was a sporting deity in Boston, though, he was just flesh-and-blood back home, just the same, old Reggie from Cecil-Kirk in East Baltimore. All the little kids saw stars in him, sure, but the people who knew him from way back, they knew him as plain ol' flesh-and-blood.

"A real person and a good friend," summed his Dunbar teammate, Reggie Williams, one of the many who offered their memories yesterday.

The day began just before noon at Lewis' mother's row house in Northeast Baltimore, on Glen Eagle, just off Loch Raven. The family gathered there through the morning. Someone hung a sign over the front porch: "We Love You Reggie." Neighbors watched somberly from their front steps.

The family members brought food for later and stood on the front porch, sharing hugs and stories. They couldn't cry. It had been 11 days. They couldn't keep crying.

Then they got in their cars and, led by three policemen on motorcycles, drove downtown toward Dunbar, in a motorcade. At the corner of Winfield and Loch Raven, two men dressed in Celtics shirts stood by the road, paying silent respect.

The procession stopped at Collington Square, where Lewis played ball as a kid and later paid to renovate the court. Everyone got out of their cars. A pickup game was stopped. The Rev. Daki Napata said a brief prayer. Lewis' mother placed pink roses in a vase, and left the vase by the court. The motorcade moved on to Dunbar. The pickup game picked back up.

At Dunbar, the auditorium was almost filled. Among the many who spoke were Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, Boston Celtics president Dave Gavitt, and, briefly, former Dunbar coach Bob Wade, who suggested that people remember, "above all, the wit, warmth and genuineness of Reggie Lewis' smile."

Said Gavitt: "There is nothing I can tell Reggie's friends and family that you don't already know. He always had a kind word for whoever he met along the way, be they pauper or king, white or black, rich or poor."

Jimmy Myers, a Boston media personality who was friendly with Lewis, spoke of what Lewis symbolized to him: "What a great city Baltimore must be, because you created the finest human being on the planet."

Aunts, cousins and brothers also spoke, as did elementary school teachers and high school principals and friends from the block. A portrait of Lewis quickly evolved: quiet, kind, unpretentious -- and that smile. A kid who studied health professions in high school, went to class, gave his mother little trouble.

Julia Woodland, his principal at Dunbar in the early 1980s, laughed about Lewis' famously quiet nature. "You'd see him during the day and go 'Hey, Reggie, where you going?' " she said, "and this little voice would come back, 'Oh, down the hall.' "

Woodland recalled Lewis making dentures for a class project. "They were showcased in a hallway," she said, "and Reggie stood there staring and smiling."

Said Woodland: "The roots of Reggie sprouted on Bradford Street and ultimately spread into a great, great forest. Reggie is the giant oak tree in that forest."

One of Lewis' brothers read a posthumous letter he had written to his brother, saying he was thankful he had "gotten to tell Reggie I love him" in a last phone conversation before Lewis' death.

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