Geary Simon, perhaps the late Sonny Bono's best buddy in D.C., has honored him with a fenced-in sliver of a park in one of Washington's busiest neighborhoods.

AMONG FRIENDS

August 01, 1998|By GEOFFREY C. UPTON | GEOFFREY C. UPTON,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When a search team discovered Rep. Sonny Bono's body at the base of a 40-foot pine at the Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., in January, the first person they informed was his wife, Mary.

Next to hear the tragic news was Geary Simon, 3,000 miles away in the nation's capital. Simon immediately caught a plane and jetted to Lake Tahoe, and then to the Bono home in Palm Springs. Over the next week, he helped with the funeral arrangements, answered reporters' questions and lent a hand to the family. At Bono's funeral, Simon was among 12 honorary pallbearers.

Yet many of those at the funeral for the entertainer-turned-politician were meeting Geary Simon for the first time. Standing outside Bono's inner circle of old California chums, and a friend for just a few years, Simon had been connected to no one but Bono himself.

"In life, you'll have a few male friends you absolutely trust, that you absolutely know you understand," Simon says. "Sonny was that kind of friend. For something that was in the scheme of life pretty short-term, it was just an incredible relationship."

In the wake of Bono's death, Simon has been moved to honor that connection by building a memorial to his friend: a Sonny Bono Park a few blocks from his home near Dupont Circle.

Back in California, a statue of Bono is planned in Palm Springs, where he served as mayor, and trees and schools are being dedicated across his district in the California desert. But Simon's is the only memorial in the city where Bono retook the national stage.

Behind the tiny park is the story of the brief but close friendship of two men who saw in each other a guy who had risen above his past: Simon, a 45-year-old developer with a record of white-collar crime, and Bono, a celebrity who lived a life of ups and downs himself before his sudden death at age 62.

Simon says creating the park -- which he says has cost him more than $25,000 -- has helped him cope with his friend's sudden death.

"I never really got a chance to say goodbye," Simon says. "I wanted to do this because I miss him."

Not long after Bono's death in January, Simon approached the city about adopting a neglected patch of land for a Bono memorial. He was put in touch with Diane Quinn, director of the city's Adopt-a-Park program, who happily granted the request.

The site he chose was a muddy, unkempt triangle at the intersection of three busy streets, one block from Dupont Circle. Six months later, the sliver of a park has become a dash of greenery in a congested area. It is covered in Kentucky bluegrass and boasts a Japanese maple, rows of Crimson fountain grass and red celosia flowers all enclosed by a wrought-iron fence.

Simon also has installed lighting and a sprinkler system and hired someone to maintain the park, which is expected to be completed this month.

There will be no likeness of Bono; instead, a simple bronze plaque will read, "In memory of my friend Sonny Bono, 1935-1998."

Below ground, a vault will contain a pair of congressional cuff links, a mug from one of Bono's Italian restaurants, and the sheet music to the Sonny and Cher hit "The Beat Goes On." Simon also is asking 40 of Bono's friends and family members to donate items to the vault.

In its renewal, Simon says, the little park is reflective of comebacks -- like that of Bono, who rose from the ashes of a failed songwriting and acting career to make it as a restaurateur, and then as a congressman popular with constituents and colleagues alike.

"I think it is a little bit symbolic of Sonny," Simon says. "A number of times in his life he took something that was nothing and made it into something great."

Bono's own appreciation for comebacks, friends say, helps explain his friendship with Simon. Indeed, those who know of their bond and of Simon's past -- notably, that he spent most of the 1980s in prison or on probation for defrauding small retailers and other business-related crimes -- say Bono's friendship with Simon was not at all surprising.

"That's classic Sonny," says Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who was one of Bono's closest colleagues in the House.

"Sonny loved to say he was both at the top of the world with a No. 1 TV show and at the bottom, becoming a caricature of himself doing 'Fantasy Island.' He identified with the underdog."

'Meaning of Life'

Simon and Bono met one day in 1994 as Simon was waiting for his girlfriend to close the Georgetown martial arts studio where Mary Bono was taking classes. A fast friendship took hold. They would speak by phone once or twice a day, Simon says, spend weeks each summer on the beach in Ocean City, and celebrate Christmas and New Year's together.

By all accounts, Bono considered Simon his best friend in Washington -- a city to which Bono was not widely welcomed when he arrived to begin his congressional term in 1995.

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