Lisa Berg. Thanks to Special Collections Research Center, The George Washington University
Former D.C. Council Chairman John Wilson poses with Marion Barry in 1983.
In the early 1990s, John Wilson was chairman of the D.C. Council, and one of the most powerful, and most popular, men in D.C. politics. Wilson was considering a bid for mayor, and if he had run, political observers say he would very likely have been elected. But John Wilson was also a man with a secret — one he had been struggling with for decades. His death 20 years ago, on May 19, 1993, shook the District.
Wilson spent the day before his death presiding over a grueling day-long public hearing.
"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 told the council at the beginning of the day.
In the archival tape, Wilson sounds sleepy and distant during the hearing. But between sessions, he made time to catch up with his old friend and colleague on the council, Marion Barry.
"We spent about an hour and a half, just talking about all kinds of things, some light, some heavy," recalls Barry.
Barry says Wilson seemed different — happier than he'd been in a long time.
"I'm almost convinced that John had made his mind up," says Barry. He was going to do this. He felt free."
John Wilson's last day
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.
The next day, May 19, John Wilson did not show up to work. It's a morning his colleagues still remember.
"We were at breakfast that John and his staff had arranged," says friend and former Council member Frank Smith. "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. So we sat there for a while thinking he was going to show any minute. We called a staff person and said, 'What happened?' And they said they hadn't seen him."
Brigid Quinn, Wilson's chief of staff, tried calling his house, but there was no answer.
"I sent a staff person over to his house, he got in, and unfortunately found John," says Quinn.
Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly broke the news to the council members, who were still waiting.
"Sharon said, 'I got some bad news for you. They just found John Wilson hung in his basement,'" remembers Barry. "And a cold chill went up and down my back. And I started crying uncontrollably."
Nobody really saw this coming. It was shocking even for Brigid Quinn, who had worked with Wilson daily for two decades.
"Total surprise. Total, total surprise," says Quinn. "I would never have thought it would come to that. Never, ever, ever in a million years, no."
A "D.C. institution"
Peter Perl, a reporter at the Washington Post, 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."
But people liked him, a lot. Wilson was elected by huge margins, in what was then the city's most diverse ward, Ward 2.
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. Drissel says Wilson was able to bring people together in a frequently divided city.
"It wasn't just racial, it was rich and poor," says Drissel. "It was young and old, it was people who'd never been in the same room together, and there was John."
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," says Drissel.
But the next day, he'd be back, all smiles.
"And then he'd apologize, and then he'd say, 'But I'm right, and you really are a blankity-blank. And Marie, you really don't know what you're talking about.' It was amazing."
While Wilson could connect with wealthy white Washingtonians, he was also at home in the poorest housing projects.
Dealing with problems
So what happened that led someone so successful to take his own life?
"The time period was difficult in the city, in 1993," says Council member Jack Evans. Evans was a Wilson protégé, winning his old Ward 2 seat when Wilson became chairman. 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 so, I think there were a lot of pressures on him to try to figure out how to run the finances of the city in the face of a disastrous economy."
Wilson chaired the finance committee before he was elected chairman of the council in 1990, so he had direct responsibility for dealing with the city's fiscal crisis. It was a role he relished, but it also weighed heavily on him, according to former Council member Frank Smith.
"John used to call himself a social liberal and a fiscal conservative," says Smith. "That would be like saying, 'I'm a Democrat and a Republican, too at the same time.' I think basically what he was saying was, 'Look, this government's got to be healthy in order to be able to function.' And for many of those years he and I served in office, it was not healthy. Because after the riots of 1968, the middle class pretty much moved out of the city."
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 also to get the city's budget under control. Smith says Wilson also felt too keenly the troubles of others.
"Some people go down to the altar with one bag of trouble, and they come back with two bags," he says. "They got their bag, and they got somebody else's bag when they come back. And so they never can 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. I knew he was moody from time to time, and I knew that he was taking some medicine. That's all I knew."
The Wilson Building
Reporter Peter Perl says Wilson couldn't open up about his depression for fear it would ruin his career. 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.
Now, when visitors enter the marble halls of the John A. Wilson Building from Pennsylvania Avenue, a life-size, smiling portrait of the former chairman greets them.
Thanks to the Special Collections Research Center at George Washington University for use of archival photos, and for the archival audio in this story. Special thanks as well to the D.C. Council for archival recordings of the May 18, 1993 Council hearing.
[Music: "Secrets" by Dallas String Quartet from Red]
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