Like many town characters, Walter Rave was recognized by just about everyone but known by few.
For decades, the bearded, 6-foot-3 Vietnam vet was a fixture in Takoma Park, an imposing (many would say frightening) figure who invariably brandished a shocking personal totem: a “bloodied” fox pelt clamped in a steel leg trap that he swung from a long chain as he walked about the town.
The gruesome accessory was meant to provoke conversation about Rave’s campaign against animal cruelty. But for most, “the fox guy” was a local spectacle to be seen and not engaged. Plenty of pedestrians crossed the street to give him a miss.
Rave, 66, lived by himself in a lonely lair on Holt Place, nearly invisible behind an unkempt wall of bamboo. The porch was jammed with clutter. All doors but the front were blocked by the bamboo or the chain-link fencing he had long ago nailed across the back in a gesture of fear and isolation. It was a house to be skipped on Halloween.
The fire, investigators said, must have started near the front of the house. The porch went up like a bonfire.
They found Walt Rave in the front yard, burned over his entire body, barely alive, all alone. For many residents, the late-night blaze in early December was a tragic but not-so-surprising end for the town’s eccentric loner.
But there was a surprise to come. Rave survived for three days, time enough for a remarkable vigil to unfold in the burn unit at Washington Hospital Center. It turns out that the loner did have friends, lots of friends, standing-room-only numbers of friends who filled out a tableau at once horrific and heartening. Rave, blinded and blackened but at least minimally responsive to the end, lay at the center of his own eulogy, hearing the story of a troubled, fierce and single-minded life told by an unexpected circle of admirers.
They spoke for hours about a linebacker of a man who would weep over photographs of abused animals, who walked an unsteady line between advocacy and intimidation for his cause, who had surprising achievements for a natural recluse.
Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder and president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, called Rave’s hospital room twice to say goodbye to an old ally. “I said, ‘Walt, you’re deeply loved and you’re a kind soul that no one will ever forget,’ ” Newkirk recalled.
Rave, one of the group’s first volunteer activists, designed the first PETA T-shirt, she said. “He drew two — a bunny sitting on a hill and an animal’s paw next to the Black Power fist. We went with the bunny.”
It was difficult to be in the room. Rave was unrecognizable; the smell was awful. But his visitors took comfort that a man who lived as a loner wouldn’t die that way.
“The only thing he could do was nod and shake his head, but Walt got to hear what dozens and dozens of friends thought of him,” said Paul Shapiro, who was in the crowded room with Rave when he died Dec. 10. “Not many people in Takoma Park knew that he did have a whole life beyond the fox.”
Chris Nordby still walks by the house five days a week. Rave’s closest friend for the past 10 years, Nordby was also his mail carrier.
“I can smell it 500 feet down the street,” Nordby said on a chill morning last week as he stood before the charred facade. A shrine of stuffed animals, notes and wilting flowers sits on the front step, under the yellow police tape. Rave’s Toyota pickup is still parked in the driveway, one of his famous hand-lettered signs fixed to the tailgate: “Selfish? Have Babies.” (In recent years, overpopulation had become another of his causes.)
“He really didn’t like people,” Nordby said. Nordby speculates that a bad relationship with his father, an officer in the District fire department, and a brief, disastrous marriage in his early 20s helped sour Rave on the human species.
But Nordby spent hours with him. Once a week, the two went to dinner at various Chinese restaurants. “I really miss him. ‘Misunderstood’ is the best way to describe Walt.”
Not that the eccentricities weren’t real and deep. Rave collected junk, castoff lamps and vacuums, often repairing and stashing them throughout the house he bought in 1984. There were five reel mowers on his porch.
He so distrusted banks that he once buried tens of thousands of dollars in his back yard for months, Nordby said. Rave had to dry the soggy bills in the oven after he dug them up again.
He worried about skin cancer. But rather than see a doctor, Rave would routinely burn off suspicious moles with a nail heated by a propane torch.
“He had me do one on his back for him,” said Nordby. “He didn’t even flinch. Walt was one tough cookie.”
But the tough skin concealed the heart of a man who also painted delicate oil portraits (often of cats), who played the flute, who loved astronomy and had assembled a meticulously accurate sky map on his ceiling, using glow-in-the-dark stars.
And he could talk and talk, at least to those he trusted. Fred Hunter, who served with Rave on the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid during the Vietnam War, spoke to him several times a week from Hunter’s home in Glen Dale, W.Va. They would chat for hours about their shared interest in the night sky, blacksmithing, about the daily antics of the six cats Rave called “my kitties.”
Until it closed in 2005, Rave ran Takoma Park’s small tool library, a public works trailer where residents could sign out ladders, wheelbarrows and other implements. He was known as a gruff and unbending clerk, but Hunter said he loved to speculate each night about the home projects of his customers.
“We’d talk so long my portable phone would go dead on me and I’d have to call him back,” Hunter said. “I think he was lonely. I could hear it in his voice a lot.”
After getting out of the Navy in 1970, Rave began expressing a deep aversion to cruelty in any form, Hunter said. And by the early 1980s, he had become consumed with anger over the mistreatment of animals. He bought an old fox pelt and a leg trap. He welded steel teeth onto the trap to make it more ominous and began carrying it to the weekly farmer’s market.
“It became his hallmark. It became part of his persona,” said Alex Hershaft, the founder of the Farm Animal Rights Movement, FARM, who met Rave during a protest at President Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration.
Hershaft and other activists often told Rave, to no avail, that his confrontational style was more off-putting than persuasive.
But Rave could also think strategically. It was his idea, during a FARM brainstorming session in 1985, to launch the Great American Meatout, a vegetarian campaign that now features more than a thousand events in 22 countries.
“He did things his own way, but we loved and respected him so much we just tolerated it,” Hershaft said. “He was a true lover of animals.”
That may have been a love that killed him.
“He told me in the hospital that it took him so long to get out because he was trying to get his cats,” said Shapiro, 32, a Takoma Park neighbor and director of farm animal protection at the Humane Society.
Montgomery County fire investigators called the 2 a.m. blaze accidental, saying it apparently started in the engine compartment of the truck adjacent to the front porch. That explanation hasn’t satisfied many of Rave’s friends, who note that the engine was apparently cold at the time. The fire remains under investigation.
Rave was unable to shed light on the fire’s cause during the laborious communication he was able to conduct in the burn unit. As friends would slowly go through the alphabet, Rave would nod when they got to the letter he wanted.
But when Shapiro first arrived, just a few hours after the fire, Rave tried another way. When he recognized his friend, he began spelling with his finger in the air: C . . . A . . .
“Cats?” Shapiro said. “Walt, are you asking if the cats survived?”
Rave nodded, exhausted. None of them was found alive, but Shapiro dissembled, saying his friends had put out food, that they would take care of everything.
“Here’s a guy who must have been in extraordinary agony,” said Shapiro, “and this was his number one concern.”
Rave then began spelling his second urgent request. It was: “Water.”
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