His many friends called Hamp Townsend the “Mayor of Old Town” Alexandria. He was known throughout the restaurants, coffee shops and bars of the city as a laughter-filled southern gentleman, a story-loving bon vivant, a walking good time. And they say he would’ve loved to read the story of what happened to him after he suddenly died in Fairfax County early on the morning of June 10.
Because for the next nine days, Fairfax police couldn’t locate any of his friends or family. During that time, Townsend’s body lay in a refrigerated compartment at Inova Fairfax Hospital.
Eventually, through Facebook and a flurry of phone calls and e-mails, Townsend’s family found him on June 19. And Thursday night, at the home of his longtime friends John and Caren Camp in Alexandria, Townsend’s crew gathered to send him off with “Hampster” tales of his generosity and upbeat nature.
Townsend was a wood expert by trade, importing exotic woods or tearing it out of old houses and using it again to construct cabinets or floors or tables or bars. “There are benches all over my neighborhood that Hamp gave my neighbors,” former longtime girlfriend Ginny Vicario said.
And he made friends fast, lots of them. His Facebook page is now a lengthy wall of heartfelt tributes to “the Mayor of Old Town.”
“He could talk about anything; he was a renaissance man,” said longtime friend Mark McCaslin, who said Townsend loved politics, sports, economics, music, geography. “And he did it all with this beautiful southern drawl dialect. You could call him up and just listening to him speak would put you into a better mood.” Townsend once likened the diminished intellect of a rival to that of “a coconut rattlin’ around in an empty box car,”McCaslin said.
He was single, married once long ago, no children. He lived alone, a renter, and he went by his middle name, shortened from Hampton, rather than his given first name, Wade. And he had recently moved from Alexandria to Fairfax County. All of these things, combined with some patrol officers’ failure to find his cell phone in his coat pocket on the night he died, created a confounding puzzle for Fairfax police.
Townsend was the son of a musician, born in 1951 in tobacco country in Mullins, S.C., his sister Alice Townsend Pearson said. He migrated to Virginia to attend high school at the Woodberry Forest boarding school south of Culpeper, where he was a superb fullback, schoolmate John Camp said. But he returned to his native state to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of South Carolina. Friends say he would have been thrilled by his alma mater’s second straight national baseball championship Tuesday night, and one of his last Facebook postings weighed in on Gamecock spring football.
With an education degree, he was a teacher and coach for a time in South Carolina, his sister said, but his family had been in the wood business, and he turned his attention there. He provided wood for home restoration projects, for many of the restaurants in Michael Babin’s Neighborhood Restaurant Group (including Vermilion and Columbia Firehouse in Alexandria, and Churchkey and Birch & Barley in the District) and he could be found dining or drinking in many of the group’s establishments.
“He was not just a barfly,” McCaslin said. “He would say, ‘I’m going out and have dinner and a drink,’” and soon he’d encounter old friends, or make new ones.
Vicario said she met him at Myrtle Beach, as her own marriage was disintegrating. “I felt he saved my life,” she said, and the two lived together for eight years in Silver Spring. “Some people say a guy’s got a great sense of humor because he tells jokes. But it’s really the way you look at life, and Hamp looked at life in a positive way. Nothing would get that man down.” She also said he was a great Shag dancer, telling people “it’s not just an English word for sex, it’s a dance you do at the beach.”
He was a voracious reader of all manner of books and newspapers, friends said, he loved to barter his services, and he always “had a line on” some expensive or exotic wood. Bartender Harry Williamson said he once mentioned to Townsend that he was building a tree house for his son. The next day, Townsend had a half-ton of wood delivered to the bar, and “he would never accept a dime for it.”
In recent months, Townsend had moved from Alexandria into an apartment in Hybla Valley, had not provided a forwarding address and had not notified the DMV. He wouldn’t tell Camp where he was living, and friends said he never had a lot of money.
Shortly after 1 a.m. on June 9, Townsend was driving south on Route 1 in the Hybla Valley area when he pulled his cluttered Ford Expedition into a 7-Eleven parking lot, clutching an aspirin bottle in his hand, police said.
A passerby looked in on him, and figured Townsend was just sleeping. An hour later, the same passerby checked again, and called 911. Police came, but Townsend was dead, of an apparent heart attack, Fairfax spokeswoman Mary Ann Jennings said.
The officers went through Townsend’s pockets and found his wallet, but somehow missed a cell phone in his jacket, Jennings acknowledged. In the “contacts” on that phone, his sister said Wednesday, were one for “Mom,” his 92-year-old mother in South Carolina.
Townsend’s driver’s license provided his old address in Alexandria, and the Fairfax officers had Alexandria police go there, but the residents didn’t know him, Jennings said. The Fairfax homicide unit was notified, but because the death did not appear suspicious, Townsend’s body was sent to Inova Fairfax Hospital for an examination by a medical examiner, rather than to the regional medical examiner’s office in Manassas for a full autopsy, where his phone would have been found.
Fairfax homicide Detective Brian Colligan began trying to find any family and friends of “Wade H. Townsend.” But Townsend had no brushes with the law, not even a parking ticket. He owned no real estate, wasn’t a registered voter, and had no recent addresses in any of the various databases that police use.
And no one reported him missing. As an independent contractor, he sometimes traveled out of the area, and as a single man he didn’t necessarily update anyone on his whereabouts. Townsend had a nephew in the area, but he didn’t have the same last name. His sister lives in Tennessee. His mother is in South Carolina. Colligan worked nights trying to track down a friend or family member, but came up empty.
The days passed, and Townsend lay in Inova Fairfax Hospital, a puzzle waiting to be solved.
Townsend’s friends began looking for him, because he had a big wood installation job lined up and he wasn’t returning calls. One friend drove past his new apartment several times, but his old truck wasn’t there.
Finally on Saturday, June 18, his landlord walked into the Mount Vernon police station and reported Townsend missing. An officer there showed her Townsend’s photo, and she confirmed it was him, Jennings said. But the landlord had no family contacts for Townsend either.
She did, however, know a friend of Townsend’s from the Fraternal Order of Eagles and told him the news, said lawyer Martin Yeager, another longtime Townsend pal. The next day, Yeager located Townsend’s sister on Facebook, messaged her and then spoke to her by phone with the apparent bad news. Both Yeager’s wife and Townsend’s husband called the Virginia medical examiner’s office and spoke to an investigator, who checked her records. They didn’t have a “Hamp Townsend,” but they did have a Wade Hampton Townsend. “Hamp” was found on June 19.
Two days later, a local funeral home called Townsend’s nephew in Washington and reported that they had his wallet and his cellphone.
Jennings said that she and Colligan both apologized to the family and friends for the delay in notifying them. “The cell phone would have give us family contacts a whole lot sooner,” she said, and she didn’t know why the officers who first found Townsend didn’t also find the phone.
“I’ve been crying for days,” his sister said. “The idea that he was just sitting up at a morgue for nine days, and I had to learn about it on Facebook? I was just astounded that they could not find his cell phone.”
But she also said, “He lived for the story. We love a good story and a good laugh. And he would have loved this story.”