From Lafayette Square Lookout, He Made His War Protest Permanent

William Thomas, shown with wife Ellen, maintained an antiwar vigil in Lafayette Square for almost 28 years.
William Thomas, shown with wife Ellen, maintained an antiwar vigil in Lafayette Square for almost 28 years. (1993 Photo By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
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By Colman McCarthy
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 8, 2009

At 1601 Pennsylvania Avenue -- his war protest site for almost 28 years facing the north front of the White House -- William "Doubting" Thomas was the closest neighbor to a succession of presidents. He and other activists turned Lafayette Square into Peace Park.

He was a compelling figure to many tourists and journalists, who periodically stopped by to interview the pony-tailed homeless man with the fanned out beard and intense gaze. One writer likened his overall appearance to that of a hero in a Dostoevsky novel.

"A lot of people probably think I'm crazy," he once told The Washington Post, "and I'm constantly questioning my sanity."

William Thomas Hallenback Jr., as he was born March 20, 1947, in North Tarrytown, N.Y., was a self-created man down to the surname he dropped. He once described himself as a former heroin addict with a jail record stretching from New York (for car theft) to Egypt (for a visa violation). Along the way, he owned a jewelry-making business in New Mexico.

After throwing his passport into the Thames River in London in a bid to renounce his citizenship, he was deported by British authorities and arrived in Washington in 1980. He became a volunteer at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, a Washington homeless shelter started by former Paulist priest Edward Guinan.

After a CCNV demonstration in front of the White House, Mr. Thomas decided to make his protest permanent. On June 3, 1981, he appeared with a placard reading, "Wanted: Wisdom and Honesty."

In time he lettered other signs, varicolored and large: "Ban All Nuclear Weapons or Have a Nice Doomsday" and "Live By the Bomb, Die By the Bomb."

Standing or sitting by his signs, and protected against nature's inclemencies by an improvised shell of umbrellas, blankets and tarps, Mr. Thomas endured blizzards, downpours, heat waves, lightning bolts, traffic fumes, lawn and sewer rats, dozens of arrests, court appearances, jailings, surveillance by ready-to-shoot Secret Service snipers, beratings by a judge who wanted to "deter others from adopting your lifestyle" and lip from out-of-town strollers who saw his signs as an eyesore detracting from the majesty of the White House.

Many others dismissed him as a First Amendment zealot.

Still he stayed.

At his death, of pulmonary disease Jan. 23 at age 61, Mr. Thomas had been spending his days at Peace House, a once-abandoned structure on 12th Street NW that he renovated with money inherited from his mother.

It was there that he ate, showered and enjoyed quiet-time breaks from a vigil that he believed, with modest pride, was the longest uninterrupted war protest in U.S. history. Having no income, he accepted donations but never cadged for money. Enough came in.

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