Memorial Service for Ben Ali at the Lincoln Theater

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 17, 2009; B03

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.

There was a prayer, in which the heavens were thanked for -- among other things -- Ali's signature chili dog and the mother of all things Ben's, the half-smoke sausage. There was a video, recycled from Ali's 80th birthday celebration two years earlier.

There was a proclamation by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, who called Ben's "one of the greatest treasures in the District of Columbia" and recalled the lunch he shared at Ben's with Barack Obama in January. "It was electric," said Fenty, one of four mayors in the room.

Onstage, a dozen floral arrangements surrounded a glowing portrait of Ali.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham, whose ward includes the spot where Ben's has been open since Aug. 22, 1958, declared that the stage-right box at the Lincoln Theatre would henceforth be called the Ben Ali Box.

Demczuk, now a GWU administrator who was the day's master of ceremonies, wore a maize-colored shirt and red handkerchief in the pocket of his dark suit -- a nod to the Ben's Chili Bowl color scheme.

Eventually, the tribute became an open-mic memorial as attendees were invited to share stories about Ben Ali.

"It's so hard to say goodbye to Ben Ali," a woman sang.

"Your arrogance has been justified by your contributions to this city," one man said.

There was a riff about Ben's as an anchor of U Street. An old poker buddy talked about Ali's gamesmanship. Somebody mentioned how remarkable it was that Ben's had survived the crack epidemic (not to mention the construction of Metro's Green Line). A former employee talked about Ali's intellectual, financial and spiritual generosity.

And then the crowd shuffled into the Lincoln lobby for one last bit -- and bite -- of Ben Ali's legacy: chili dogs, on the house.

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