Memorial Service for Ben Ali at the Lincoln Theater
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Ben Ali gave all three of his children the same middle name: His own.
"The man could cuss," recalled Sage Ben Ali, one of the three sons of the founder of Ben's Chili Bowl, and he laughed at the thought.
"Dad celebrated life to the fullest," said Nizam Ben Ali, who noted that his father owned homes in three states and traveled the world. Shortly before dying of congestive heart failure last week at the age of 82, Ali took a two-week cruise with his wife of 51 years, Virginia. Never told his cardiologist he was going, either.
"He sucked the marrow out of life," said another son, Kamal Ben Ali. "Eighty-two years -- he lived like a king."
Bernard Demczuk, a former mayoral aide who loves Ben's so much he regularly brings his George Washington University students there for a lesson on Washington history, summed it up at the beginning of a memorial tribute to Ali during Friday's lunch hour: "There was more to Ben Ali than Ben's Chili Bowl."
Every Washingtonian worth his half-smoke knows about the landmark U Street NW diner that Mahaboob Ben Ali founded in 1958. Ali's friends and family tried to fill in the rest of the picture during Friday's session at the Lincoln Theatre, which is just across Ben Ali Way from the restaurant.
Ali, an immigrant from Trinidad of Indian descent, mastered the stock market (Xerox was a must-buy, he kept telling people before the stock exploded). He had a penchant for playing the ponies and poker. He wore maroon pajamas around his house at the edge of Rock Creek Park.
He loved Shakespeare and inspirational self-help mantras, such as the one that appeared on buttons that were handed out at the Lincoln: "If you believe, you can achieve." Ali's smiling visage appeared beneath the words.
And the ego. Oh, the ego!
It made at least one final appearance shortly before Ali died, his family recalled. Noting his VIP accommodations at George Washington University Hospital, "he told me that, finally, he was being treated as he deserved," Nizam said, and the assembled hundreds broke up.
"He told me, 'You'll realize I'm a genius after I'm gone,' " Sage said. Hubris? Nah. "It's true."
An audience of politicians, diplomats, friends, family members and just plain folks convened for the memorial, which was billed as a celebration. "It's not about sadness," said Sage, although Nizam Ali seemed to disagree, breaking down while he spoke about their father.