Effi Barry, 1944-2007

D.C. First Lady Braved Her Husband's Storms With Quiet Resolve

Effi and Mayor Marion Barry bask in applause in 1990.
Effi and Mayor Marion Barry bask in applause in 1990. "In my darkest hour, she was my brightest light," he said yesterday. (By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
By Patricia Sullivan and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 7, 2007

Effi Barry, 63, the former first lady of Washington who with grace and stoicism endured the public ordeal of her then-husband's arrest in an infamous sex and drug scandal, died yesterday at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis. She had acute myeloid leukemia.

The disease, a blood-cell cancer that begins in the bone marrow, led her to wage a campaign encouraging more African Americans to be part of the registry for bone marrow transplants.

In 1978, Barry, a onetime model working as a city restaurant inspector, was thrust into the public spotlight when she married Marion Barry as he campaigned to become the second elected mayor of Washington. A regal presence at social functions, she was expected in some quarters to be in the mold of Jacqueline Kennedy but early on drew cool and sometimes hostile feelings from the city's African American establishment, owing to a mix of factors including her reserved demeanor, lack of experience in the civil rights movement and light skin.

Years later, the resentment turned to respect when the mayor was captured on videotape smoking crack cocaine and seeking sex with an FBI informant. Barry, who was at home with their 8-year-old son when her husband was arrested, sat through every day of his 1990 trial in the front row, calmly hooking a rug with a poised expression on her face. Her quiet resolve won her many admirers, even while she quietly struggled with the shock and public humiliation of the trial.

She left the District after her husband's conviction, and the couple divorced in 1993. She taught health and sex education at Hampton University for 12 years and returned to Washington for their son's final year in high school. She supported her former husband in his successful 2004 bid for the Ward 8 D.C. Council seat, to the surprise of the public and political insiders.

Barry worked as a consultant for a local nonprofit group focused on children in poverty before becoming a program director for the D.C. Department of Health's HIV/AIDS Administration.

In February 2006, she went to the Howard University Hospital emergency room thinking she was suffering from a sinus infection. After acute myeloid leukemia was diagnosed, she went into remission for a year, then had a relapse this spring.

"My idea was to bring awareness to a very serious health issue. I am not here for pity," she told The Washington Post in May. "Whenever you face adversity, you use it as an opportunity. I see this as an opportunity because, had it not been for the kindness of the people of the District, I would not still be alive today."

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said in a statement, "It was characteristic of Effi, who was a dedicated educator, to use her battle against leukemia to encourage African Americans to donate urgently needed bone marrow and join the registry for bone marrow transplants, needed for life-threatening diseases like leukemia."

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) called Barry "a truly great woman who devoted her life to public service for this city, and who was beloved by its people. She will be remembered for her work on public health issues for our residents and as an incredible example of poise and grace."

He ordered D.C. flags to be flown at half-staff through her funeral day.

Marion Barry said in an interview yesterday, "In my darkest hour, she was my brightest light."

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