Every day for decades, Leroy Cook lifted himself from the plush, felt-covered living room armchair, his belly full from dinner, and grabbed a set of tongs from behind his front door. He would descend his home’s front steps and walk, five-gallon orange paint bucket in one hand, tongs in the other.
Down 15th Street NE. Up the alley behind his house. A turn onto 14th Street, then back around. When he returned, his bucket would be filled with discarded beer cans and shreds of paper.
Along the way, Cook would banter with his Brentwood neighbors. He offered them food and company. When people needed jobs, he helped them look. Cook — neighbors called him “mayor” — watched over his District community for more than 40 years.
In June, Cook died after he was hit by a dump truck. Family, co-workers and neighbors remembered him as someone who was always positive and never failed to make a new friend. They found his sudden death incomprehensible.
Cook was still working as a mail runner at Fort Myer Construction Co. at age 84 when he was killed — not because he needed the money, family members said, but because he enjoyed being around people. His lighthearted whistles and songs could often be heard in the company’s hallways.
“He was real,” said Beatrice Cook, his wife of 63 years. “He helped people, he loved his family, he was a hard worker.”
At about a quarter past 9 a.m. on June 19, a sunny Tuesday, police responded to a report that a man had been hit by a dump truck at the construction company’s asphalt plant on W Street NE. Cook was rushed to a hospital, where he died.
Police have termed Cook’s death an “industrial accident.” The incident is being investigated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which declined comment on the case.
“Our heart goes out to the family and close friends,” said Chris Kerns, general counsel for Fort Myer Construction. “He had a lot of close friends here at the company.”
Fort Myer officials said the truck was not owned by the company, but they declined further comment, citing company policy. Authorities have not named the driver or the company that owned the truck.
Beatrice Cook was chatting on the telephone the morning of June 19 when another call came in. She ignored it and continued with her conversation.
The call came again. It was her grandson, flustered that he hadn’t been able to reach her. Leroy Cook had been hit by a truck.
“That was the absolute worst day of my life, I swear,” she said.
Weeks later, Beatrice Cook thumbed through an expandable brown folder as about a dozen family members exchanged memories of the man nicknamed “Cookie.” They sat in chairs and sofas in her cozy living room, its walls dotted with family photographs.
She pulled out the glossy, four-page program the family gave guests at Leroy Cook’s June 29 funeral service. A picture on the front cover showed Leroy smiling, his left eyebrow cocked upwards. “Let the Life I lived — Speak for me,” a lyric from a gospel hymn, was written in black italic letters.
Family members remembered Cook as a man who always found a way to get his wife — and more than two dozen children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — whatever they wanted, whether it was his son Victor’s first car, a ’57 Chevy station wagon; a chartered bus for a July 2006 family trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C.; a laptop for a grandchild; or just spare cash.
“He would save from one year to the next,” Beatrice Cook said.
Leroy Cook was the driving force behind the tight-knit clan, family said. He insisted on gathering for holidays and vacations, and on Saturdays he would drive with his son, daughter and grandson to a house in Thornburg, Va., that he hoped to turn into a family vacation home.
As family reminisced in the small, two-story brick house on the corner of 15th and Downing streets, friends drifted in to join the conversation. Valerie Blakeney, 46, stood in the middle of the living room, hands clasped at her waist.
“Papa Cook told me how to hold a job down,” Blakeney said. “You gotta take care of your own self.”
Minutes later, Robert Redmond, 47, entered. He struggled to hold back tears as he spoke. Cook, he said, “wanted to uplift me” and helped him get his first job, in construction, in 1979.
Jessie McPhaul, 69, said the Cook house was always popular at Halloween because it had the most candy in the neighborhood.
Cook, she remembered, would buy fruit or corn, poke his head out of his front door and invite neighbors in to eat.
“Mr. Cook was the mayor of Downing Street,” said McPhaul said. “He cared for everyone he came in contact with. If he could help you, he would.”
Friends and relatives are trying to fill some of the voids left by Cook’s death. The family plans to restart work on the vacation home and make a return trip to Myrtle Beach. And Blakeney now walks her block, picking up trash and trying to keep her part of the neighborhood clean.
But Leroy Cook’s absence will nevertheless be felt, those who knew him say. “You ain’t gonna find another Mr. Cook,” Redmond said.