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The Doer, Undone

Up, Up, and Crashing Down; The Old Neighborhood Claims Terry Hairston

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 2, 2005; Page D01

For so many years the arc of Terry Hairston's young life was beautiful to watch. He was a kid from the harsh inner city, but he had been raised by queens -- five indulgent older sisters, a caring mom. He went from prep school to storied Morehouse College, then came back home to the District. In 1995, when he was elected to the D.C. school board, he was all of 28 years old.

Hairston was an elegant sight in his silk bow ties. His smile was dazzling, and he was flat-out handsome. Politicians talked of his drive and energy. There he was, next to Anthony Williams, next to Marion Barry, arms flung around Sharon Pratt Kelly.

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Last May, he lay, arms at his side, in a coffin. He'd been shot, according to police, in his house on Burns Street SE by two women from his old neighborhood, the neighborhood he never really left, even as his sisters fled for the leafy suburbs.

He died beneath a campaign poster: "Terry Hairston for City Council Ward 7." He died on the same day a niece and a sister were receiving college degrees and awaiting his arrival at the ceremonies. The day became a family tableau of achievement -- and horror.

The accused were arrested in September, charged with first-degree murder. Police documents paint a portrait of two unemployed young women living edgy lives. They lived within walking distance of Terry Hairston.

The riddles of his life were like tears: You'd see them and not want to comment.

"Burns Street is rough," says Barry, who served as a kind of political guru to Hairston. "But those were the people Terry grew up with. He seemed to know every hustler in town."

Both Williams and Barry spoke at the funeral.

Now his family sits in anguish, dizzy with questions and pain. He was an only son, and the youngest of six. "He was special to all of his sisters," says Mia Hairston-Hamilton, his mother. "I didn't need a babysitter. He went from arm to arm. They cared for him when he was born -- until the time of his death."

At the time of his death he was 38 years old, with a ton of dreams and silk bow ties in a drawer.

"A lot of people think a Morehouse man is the ultimate bourgeois member of the black community," says John Floyd, a lawyer for whom Hairston once worked. "For Terry, it was both a strength and a curse."

But things had long been whispered, like wind chimes, in and around the life of Terry Hairston. His sister, Regenna Grier, a D.C. police officer, wrote in her diary two years ago: "Often people tell me they've seen my little brother in places where I couldn't imagine he would be. . . . Fellow officers would tell me they've seen or met my little brother, but told me they had promised not to tell me where."

Making the Most of Burns Street

He was born in Danville, Va., on Dec. 11, 1965, and moved to the District with his father, Odell, when he was 2. The rest of the family followed, eventually settling in the house on Burns Street.

The Southeast neighborhood was a harsh environment. A housing project was nearby. Gang members sashayed through the neighborhood.

But little Terry survived, amassing impressive academic credentials. His mother got a job cleaning L'Enfant Plaza office buildings at night so he could attend St. John's Military Academy (now St. John's College High School) and later, Mackin Catholic High School (now defunct).

He seemed imbued with a social streak. He gave homeless men hamburgers that he bought from a fast-food chain. His sisters were impressed with his desire to engage in long philosophical debates as he demanded to know both sides of any thorny issue.

While the women of the family were always there for Terry, the same wasn't true of his father. Odell Hairston was a notorious womanizer -- in his lifetime he'd father more than 20 children. According to one of the Hairston daughters, he was "a functional alcoholic." Terry hated the sight of his father when he was intoxicated.

Odell Hairston, who had become estranged from his wife by Terry's high school years, began to introduce his son to young ladies. Some of the young ladies Odell himself had dated.

"I used to ask these young girls, 'What in the world do you see in that old man?' " Regenna Grier says of her father, who died in 2002.

And they'd tell her he was charming, he had a way with words.

When Mia brought up the subject of college in Terry's senior year, mentioning George Washington, American, Georgetown and Howard universities, Terry told her he had made up his mind already.

"He said, 'I'm going to Morehouse,' " his mother recalls.

The school had cachet. The great Benjamin Mays had been its president. Martin Luther King Jr. had been a Morehouse man. Actor Samuel L. Jackson and director Spike Lee, two Morehouse alums, often lauded the school in interviews.

And so the Morehouse acceptance letter arrived in the mail -- as Terry seemed to know it would. "It was amazing," says Marion Barry, "that, coming from that environment, he got out and went to Morehouse."

The Morehouse Years

His mother and sisters drove him to Atlanta, then continued to spoil him, sending him treats, money.

"I sent him $50 here, $80 there," says his sister Cheri, 45, an IRS manager.

"I gave him a red Sentra," says another sister, Haretta, 44, a retired D.C. Superior Court computer specialist.

He had a Macy's charge card and fancied Ralph Lauren Polo fashions. He fed friends -- opening his door -- Come in, come in. He pledged Kappa Alpha Psi and the frat brothers crowded into his room to partake of the treats sent by his family.

He bopped his head to cool rhythm and blues. Cheri remembers one particular song Terry became enamored of, Marlena Shaw's soul rendition of "Go Away Little Boy." The song is about a woman who knows she must resist the entreaties of an ex-lover, but he's just too seductive and wily for her:

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