Some say it felt like a family reunion as so many who attended a celebration honoring the life and legacy of Ron Clark had not seen one another for years. As he’d done throughout his life, even in death, Ron managed to revive friendships of old at his funeral service, Saturday, Aug. 10 at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Southwest. An overflow crowd stood in the rear of the sanctuary, spilling onto the patio outside — anxious to pay their respects and share in the tribute to a friend who made a difference for thousands.
The celebration, replete with laughter and tears, included a group of jazz musicians dubbed the Ron Clark Memorial Quintet along with 23 speakers — each recounting a unique “Ron Story” for the audience. Unable to attend, both Congresswomen Barbara Lee and Eleanor Holmes Norton entered statements into the Congressional Record honoring Ron’s life and work.
Lee, representing the 13th Congressional District, California, wrote the following.
“I am so privileged to have called Ron my friend who I first met in the mid-1970s through a mutual friend, Mrs. Leola “Roscoe” Dellums — a board member for RAP, Inc. She wanted me to see Ron’s life-affirming work and knew I’d support and embrace his groundbreaking, visionary approach to drug addiction. For that, I am deeply grateful and join Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton in celebrating Ron’s impactful life and legacy. May he rest in power and in peace.”
Full statements from Lee and Norton may be obtained in the permanent record of the proceedings in Congress on Aug. 2 and 10, respectively.
Long-time friend Tom Porter hosted the celebration which began with the Malcom X Drummers, followed by blessings with prayers and libations offered by Nana Kwabena Brown — collectively reflecting the Afrocentric approach to substance abuse treatment which Ron developed and which brought national recognition to RAP, Inc.
The Ron Clark Memorial Quintet featured musicians: Nasar Abadey, drums; Herman Burney, bass; Janelle Gil, piano; James King, bass; and Ben Sands, saxophone. The Malcom X drummers featured: Bill Caudle, Sidiki Lancaster, Eric Lewis, Joseph Ngwa, Kokayi Patterson and Doc Powell.
Dr. Reed Tuckson, D.C.’s commissioner of Public Health from 1985-1989, provided an historical context of Ron’s work.
“During the height of the District’s crack cocaine epidemic, an estimated 900 people were arrested every weekend on drug-related charges — ¼ being Black men, 18 -29, imprisoned on drug-related charges,” he said. “Meanwhile, HIV/AIDS was rapidly increasing among the population of injection drug users and those who lacked adequate information about the importance of practicing unsafe sex.
Within the intensity of those surging challenges, Tuckson said the contributions of Clark proved invaluable.
“Ron Clark, with his enormous sense of humanity, grew roses out of the soil of despair,” he said, adding that Ron’s life serves as a legacy of challenge. “Each of us must ask ourselves, what will we do to meet that challenge to help and serve others.”
Following the celebration, Charles Stephenson, a member of the Board of RAP, Inc. and Ron’s friend of many years shared his perspective.
“Words cannot express the feelings I had during Ron’s celebration,” he said. “It was warm, sensitive and most important, it was Ron. Story after story, we heard about and felt the good that Ron did for so many people.”
Maurice Jackson, professor at Georgetown University, another friend unable to attend, sent a message: “In a city where self-promotion is the rule of law and of survival, Ron Clark stood different,” he said. “In a nation run by a bully, in a city where grown men shoot little boys eating ice cream cones and where meanness is the norm — he was a kind and honorable man — that made him special.”
“Ron was a quiet giant. He preferred to let actions speak louder than words. Such are those with supreme confidence in themselves and in their mission. His mission was to aid others. His mission was RAP, Inc. People brag a lot in this city about what they are going to do. Ron did not brag. He got things done.”
“He did not live in the past — he lived in the present and for the future. Ron took the stain out of a man or a woman or a child wanting to rid themselves of drugs. He made it a badge of honor to overcome the scourge. He took his message to the city leaders and the city leaders heard him. He made RAP an institution.”
Denise Rolark Barnes, publisher of The Washington Informer, spoke about the friendship between her father, Dr. Calvin Rolark, and Ron. The charity Dr. Rolark co-founded, The United Black Fund, served as the first charitable organization to donate to RAP — the friendship between RAP and the newspaper continues today.
WPFW-FM radio brought speakers to pay tribute to Ron’s work with the station including: Lorne Cress Love, one of the co-founders of the station; Askia Muhammad, a steadfast jazz programmer; Joni Eisenberg, host of the health show “To Heal DC;” and Katea Stitt, acting program director.
They shared one memory when WPFW, then in its infancy, lost its broadcasting location during which Ron gave the station rent free space from which to broadcast for two years while the station looked for another home — indicative of the kind of spirit that guided Ron throughout his life.