MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We move now from 1950s Washington to the D.C. of the early '90s. In those days a man named John A. Wilson headed up the D.C. Council. As one of the most powerful and popular men in D.C. politics, Wilson was considering a bid for mayor, and if he had run, many say he would very likely have won. But turns out John Wilson had a darker side, one which led to an event that shook the District 20 years ago this month. Jacob Fenston has the story.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
On May 18, 1993, John Wilson went to work as usual.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
As council chairman, Wilson was presiding over a grueling day-long public hearing.
MR. JOHN WILSON
I would like to inform the Council that the chairman has over 40 witnesses today, and if you do not have to pontificate, I would appreciate it.
Wilson sounds sleepy and distant during the hearing. But between sessions, he made time to catch up with his old friend and colleague, Marion Barry.
MR. MARION BARRY
And we spent about an hour and a half, just talking about all kinds of things, you know, some light, some heavy.
And Barry says Wilson seemed different, he seemed happier than he'd been in a long time.
I'm almost convinced that John had made his mind up. He was going to do this. He felt free.
Hearing stands adjourned until Friday at 10:00 p.m. -- 10:00 a.m.
The next day, May 19th, John Wilson did not show up to work. It's a morning his colleagues still remember. Council member Jack Evans.
MR. JACK EVANS
There was some reason we were all getting together, so most of the council members were there.
MR. FRANK SMITH
We were at breakfast that John -- he was chairman of the Council -- that he and his staff had arranged.
Former council member Frank Smith.
It was a breakfast that we were all waiting for him and for the mayor to come, Mayor Kelly. And he didn't show up, which was unusual for him to be late. And so we sat there for a while thinking that he was going to show any minute.
MS. BRIGID QUINN
We started calling. No answer.
Brigid Quinn was Wilson's chief of staff.
I sent a staff person over to his house. He got in and unfortunately found John.
She told the mayor, Sharon Pratt Kelly, and Kelly went to the council members who were still waiting.
Sharon said, "I've got some bad news for you. They just found John Wilson hung in his basement." And a cold chill went all up and down my back.
He was on a stretcher. By the time we got there, it was -- it makes my voice shake even now, today.
And it was a very sad day for everyone. And kind of threw us all for a loop.
Nobody really saw this coming. It was shocking even for Brigid Quinn, who had worked with Wilson every day for two decades.
Total surprise. Total, total surprise. I would never have thought it would come to that. Never, ever, ever in a million years, no.
MR. PETER PERL
When John Wilson died it was a huge story in D.C.
Peter Perl was a reporter at the Washington Post. He spent the months after Wilson's death digging into the story for a long magazine piece. Wilson, he says, was totally unique among lawmakers.
He was clearly the most colorful, the most charismatic, and probably the most effective member of the D.C. government.
Wilson was a D.C. institution. He came out of the Civil Rights movement, along with other black leaders including Marion Barry. Wilson and Barry were elected to the first D.C. Council in 1974. But along with being the city's most effective lawmaker, Perl says Wilson was also its most erratic, a trait that could be --
Disarming and attractive, but also just very strange.
But people liked him, a lot. Wilson was elected by huge margins, in what was then the city's most diverse ward, Ward 2. In a frequently divided city, he brought people together.
MS. MARIE DRISSEL
It wasn't just racial, it was rich and poor, it was young and old, it was people who'd never been in the same room together.
Political activist Marie Drissel lives in a posh section of Adams Morgan. She supported Wilson, and became a close friend, starting back in the '70s. Part of Wilson's appeal was his blunt honesty. He would tell you what he thought, no matter who you were, and somehow make you love him for it.
John had the ability to criticize you right in your face. I mean, he could just tell you off.
While Wilson could connect with wealthy, white Washingtonians, he was also at home in the poorest housing projects. And he didn't shy from giving fellow African Americans a hard time, too.
I mean, I don't understand black people anyway, wake up talking about I don't know who I am. I have low self-esteem.
Here he's talking to a class at Howard University, sitting on the teacher's desk, holding forth and enjoying it.
It's like my father used to tell me, "Come on over here. You got low esteem? I'll kick some in your ass, you know, in the process. You know, so that you'll have some," he said. You see. You know, I don't know who I am. I'm in search of myself. You know what I mean? You in search all right. All you have to do is go look in any mirror. You are black. You are going to be black until the day you die. And there's always going to be somebody who comes and wants to rain on your parade because you are.
Now, what you have to decide is whether or not you're going to let people rain on your parade. There's a constitution that says that you do not have a right to rain on my goddamn parade on any given day.
So what happened to rain on John Wilson's parade?
The time period was difficult in the city, in 1993.
Council member Jack Evans, again. Evans says the budget pressures in the city probably had something to do with Wilson's suicide.
The economy nationwide was in a free-fall, and the city was in a free-fall. And John was head of the Council and had been the finance chair. And so, I think there were a lot of pressures on him to try and figure out how to run the finances of the city in the face of a disastrous economy.
Total deficit projected for '93, $110.9 million.
That's Wilson at a press conference in 1992. He's wielding a pointer and has a series of giant charts.
They mayor says we don't need furloughs. She says she wants to raise salaries in 1993. Where is the money? Look at the charts. There is no money for '93.
Well, you know, John used to call himself a social liberal and a fiscal conservative.
Former council member Frank Smith, again. Smith says part of Wilson's undoing was the tension between these two desires. He wanted the government to live up to its social contract, providing good jobs and helping the poor, but, at the same time, to get the city's budget under control. Smith says Wilson also felt too keenly the troubles of others.
You know, some people go down to the altar with one bag of trouble, and they come back with two bags. They got their bag and somebody else's bag when they come back. And so they never can sort of lay that burden down, and I think that was John's problem.
There was also a medical name for Wilson's problem, depression. He had been fighting it his whole adult life. But he didn't talk about it, even with his close friend Marion Barry.
John kept it from us. In fact, I learned he'd tried to commit suicide two times earlier. I didn't know that.
Reporter Peter Perl says Wilson couldn't open up about his depression for fear it would ruin his career. And this came to a head as he contemplated running for mayor.
Here he was, fulfilling his own dream and the expectations of a whole lot of people, and on the verge of this. And I just think that the pressure of him knowing how flawed he was, and hardly anyone else knowing, probably just at some point became so painful that he had no other way to get out of it.
Five months after his death, the Council voted to rename the District Building after Wilson.
Council member Jack Evans has Wilson's old office on the main floor of what's now the John A. Wilson Building. And now, when visitors enter the marble halls from Pennsylvania Avenue, a life-size, smiling portrait of John Wilson greets them.
I'm Jacob Fenston.
You can see photos of John Wilson on our website, metroconnection.org. And a big thanks to the Special Collections Research Center at George Washington University for use of those photos, and for the archival audio in this story. Special thanks as well to the D.C. Council.
Time for a break, but when we get back, sharing secrets with strangers.
MR. FRANK WARREN
We are a very exposed country, but I also think that there's always a line between what we're comfortable sharing and the parts of ourselves that we want to keep private.
That and more in just a minute on "Metro Connection,” here on WAMU 88.5.
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