The only thing Joe Allbritton liked more than telling a good story was hearing one.
So several hundred friends and colleagues who gathered Tuesday at Washington National Cathedral to mourn his death Dec. 12 at the age of 87 were treated to a few good stories about the business titan, art collector, thoroughbred breeder and philanthropist.
Vernon E. Jordan Jr., the lawyer and civil rights activist, recalled Allbritton quoting long verses from Shakespeare and Kipling’s “Gunga Din” and inviting friends over to see his “pictures,” which happened to be masterpieces by Picasso, Monet and van Gogh.
W. Thomas Johnson, chairman of the LBJ Foundation, told how the head of the Allbritton Communications empire comforted friends receiving bad press with the advice that it would be as ephemeral as a bad haircut: “In three or four days, nobody will notice.”
James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state, divulged how the self-made millionaire quietly picked up the transportation and lodging costs of Americans who otherwise couldn’t afford to accept invitations to sit in the balcony during presidential State of the Union addresses.
“I really loved the guy,” Baker said. “He lived fully. He laughed heartily. He succeeded enormously.”
The mourners reflected the vast reach of Allbritton’s life and interests, from his business dealings to his private passions for art and horse racing.
Peter Westmacott, Britain’s ambassador to the United States, was there at the request of Prince Charles. Allbritton’s limousine driver also attended.
The 15 ushers were a who’s who of Allbritton’s business dealings, including officials with Allbritton Communications, Riggs Bank and Politico, the news site Allbritton’s company bankrolled. There were news anchors from WJLA, the ABC affiliate here that bears Allbritton’s initials as its call letters, and the jockey who rode Hansel, the Allbritton thoroughbred who won the Preakness and Belmont stakes in 1991. There were executives from the National Gallery of Art and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
It was a reminder of how far Allbritton had come from D’Lo, Miss., where he was born the sixth of seven children.
“If you owned everything in town, it wouldn’t be enough to buy a Greyhound bus ticket to Jackson,” is how Allbritton once described D’Lo to Bishop Nathan D. Baxter, a former dean of the cathedral who now leads a diocese in Pennsylvania.
But Jordan said Allbritton was proud to have been born in D’Lo. “He perhaps was the only person there proud to claim it,” Jordan said.
That the memorial service was being held at the cathedral, which is part of the Episcopal Diocese, was fitting in more ways than one. Allbritton served on the cathedral board and, in the 1980s, helped arrange a refinancing that saved it from foreclosure, Baxter said. For that, Allbritton was named an honorary canon of the cathedral, its highest honor.
But Jordan noted that Allbritton never left the faith he was raised in.
“Joe remained a Baptist, though he behaved like an Episcopalian,” Jordan said, adding, “And he gave to the Catholics. So Joe could have walked through several gates to heaven.”
Jordan said that Allbritton was comfortable mingling with people from the highest to the lowest walks of life — particularly if they had a good story to swap.
“He rode in the royal coach with the queen at Ascot,” Jordan said. “But he would spend 10 minutes conversing with a street vendor until both were laughing at some story Joe told.”
Johnson described Allbritton’s sense of humor as mischievous. He recalled that once Allbritton spent time at a social event chatting with an attractive young woman, then walked over to one of his aides and told him, “I told her I’m very wealthy and you are going to inherit my entire fortune. So I’ve done all I can to help you this evening. The rest is up to you.”
Baker said Allbritton embraced what life has to offer and appreciated the wealth that made it possible to indulge in his interests.
“He loved art. He also loved the art of the deal,” Baker said. “He loved Riggs Bank, Baylor University and the Alfalfa Club. He loved Lady Bird’s wildflowers and presidential libraries. He loved the racetrack and ponies. He loved this cathedral and his farm. He adored his grandchildren. He loved his jet and took joy in the wealth that made it possible. He also loved giving away his wealth with no expectation of recognition.”
The speakers said Allbritton recognized that losing was part of life, too.
According to Johnson, Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who rode Allbritton’s thoroughbred Hansel, said Allbritton was the only horse owner who ever came to the stables to thank him after a horse he rode had lost.
It was after one of Hansel’s losses in a race he was expected to win that Allbritton’s attorney found him sitting alone in his limousine, Jordan said. Thinking Allbritton was licking his wounds, the lawyer opened the car door to console him. Instead, Allbritton looked up and remarked, “Hasn’t this been a wonderful day?”
“Can’t you see Joe Allbritton say of his time on this Earth, ‘Hasn’t it been a wonderful day?’ ” Jordan said. “Indeed it has, Joe. Indeed it has.”