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.
A steady run of visitors dropped by to see Mr. Thomas -- from Philip F. Berrigan, the antiwar activist and former Roman Catholic priest, to Japanese survivors of the World War II atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 1991, the Berlitz Travel Guide ran a photo of his vigil with the caption: "It is the right of every American to take a stand and make a point."
Months after Mr. Thomas took his spot near the White House, Concepcion Picciotto, a Spanish-born woman of like pacifist bent, joined the vigil. She constructed a snug, well-insulated tent as a refuge.
Mr. Thomas told a Cox newspaper reporter that she arrived initially in need of medical help for her legs, and he found her a doctor who could help.
"She trusts me," he said. "I'm the only person in the world she trusts."
In 1984, Ellen Benjamin, an official at the National Wildlife Federation who is now affiliated with the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, noticed Mr. Thomas as she walked through Lafayette Square.
She liked his signs. They spoke. "I finally met someone," she recalled last week, "who thought about peace as I did." They soon married. Though not your typical Washington power couple, they were surely the most visible in defying power.
Mr. Thomas was one of the unflagging forces in the early 1990s of Proposition One, a ballot initiative calling for nuclear disarmament that was approved by 57 percent of District of Columbia voters. Eight times since, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has introduced similar legislation in Congress. The bill has yet to get out of committee.
Mr. Thomas's legal scrapes came from his insistence that he was vigiling, not camping. In case after case, the courts sided with the government's claim that Mr. Thomas was no more than a happy camper violating federal regulations.
Except for one three-month prison stretch, which included Benjamin, he was usually held overnight and released in the morning.
Mr. Thomas wrote in May 1996 that he sometimes "questioned the practicality of my vigil." But he added: "Figuring that it is more realistic to try to keep the world from changing me than for me to try changing the world -- I've decided to continue my vigil until I'm shown something better to do."
He was never shown.
Colman McCarthy, a former Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace, an organization that fosters conflict resolution. He teaches courses on nonviolence at six Washington area schools.