A Week of Sorrow Comes to an End
and Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 1, 1998; Page A01
They buried Jacob Joseph Chestnut yesterday, a police officer and family man who stood protecting "the gates of freedom." People of all colors, ranks and denominations, neighbors and strangers, came together for a second funeral in two days, ending a week of mourning and uniting to honor a guardian struck down at the door of the U.S. Capitol.
The sky swelled, then released drops, and the people came to a church in Fort Washington, one by one, two by two. Little girls in patent leather shoes. Elderly women in church hats. Men with canes and police officers from across the country. In grays, browns and blues, they lined up to salute Chestnut. He and fellow U.S. Capitol Police officer John M. Gibson were mortally shot July 24 by a deranged man who burst into the Capitol.
The shots pierced a semblance of peace that many had faith would protect their symbols of democracy. The slayings of Chestnut and Gibson, and the wounding of a bystander, were reminders that no one and no place is safe, many mourners said, but they called Chestnut and Gibson heroes for "laying down their lives."
Chestnut's burial yesterday, after Gibson's on Thursday, closed a week in which the country united in responding to a collective shock.
"We've come together as a community," the Rev. Grainger Browning, pastor of Ebenezer AME Church, told more than 3,500 mourners who filled the church's vast sanctuary. "All because of Mr. Chestnut, who in doing his duty did not see black people, white people, red people or yellow people. . . . He did not see conservatives or liberals. He did not see Republicans or Democrats. He did not see rich or poor. He did not see Americans or Taiwanese or Africans or Asians. He saw them as God's people."
The "homecoming services" for Chestnut began early yesterday, as thousands waited hours in the rain at the doors of the church in Fort Washington, the middle-class community in Prince George's County where Chestnut lived. The services continued with a 15-mile cortege that, like Gibson's on Thursday, closed highways and wound past the Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery for a burial with military honors.
At the church, a military band wearing black cloaks beat drums and played bagpipes. Hundreds of officers stood at attention outside, white gloves wrapped around flagpoles held high.
"In my mind, I just had to be here. I just couldn't be any place else today," said Douglas Hardison, a Fort Washington resident who grew up with Chestnut in North Carolina. "I can remember that smile from when he was a kid in elementary school. Even then, he had that charisma and that smile."
Inside the church's foyer, a detail of officers from different forces stood at attention as a recording played of Mahalia Jackson singing "Amazing Grace." At 8:58, two black limousines circled the church, and a Prince George's police officer shouted, "Detail, attention!"
They snapped and saluted as a long procession of Chestnut's extended family folded their umbrellas and trudged into the church holding hands. Nineteen minutes later, the doors swung open again, and Wendy Wenling Chestnut, Chestnut's wife of 23 years, stepped in. A small woman in a black suit, with her children and other relatives trailing her, she walked tall.
"There she is," whispered Ethel Smith, a D.C. social worker who had come to pay her respects to a stranger. "My God, there she is. God bless her soul."
Twenty-three more minutes passed. The sounds of hard-soled heels squeaked on a wet sidewalk. Lynn Gibson, who had buried her husband the day before, arrived in a dark suit. Gibson's family followed.
Soon the people, the strangers, those who had come out of a sense of respect for police officers and a respect for humanity piled through the doors. They crept slowly and quietly up the stairs to the balcony.
Inside, as the choir sang, the widow sat in the first row, near the coffin draped in stars and stripes. The Mass Choir of Ebenezer rocked, and the Metropolitan Police Choir soothed as they sang, "To God be the glory."
Members of Congress filed into a section to the right of the Chestnuts. Quietly, Wenling Chestnut rose and extended her hand to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). The small woman in the black suit then moved to Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) and the next member of Congress and the next. Each stood, then they all rose as she moved from one row to the next. Soon she had disappeared amid suits.
A church member standing in the balcony whispered, "I pray for her. I know God gave her this strength, and He will, too, if you ask Him for it. She's going to need some rest later, much, much rest."
During the funeral, Jacob Chestnut, 58, was remembered as a man of peace, a serviceman who loved his family and a neighbor who sowed his garden and shared what he reaped -- squash, peppers and zucchini.
"It was not the way he died that made him a hero," said Chief Gary L. Abrecht, of the U.S. Capitol Police. "It was the way he lived."
According to Chestnut's own pastor, the Rev. Jack A. Marcom Jr., of Fort Washington Baptist Church, the police officer arrived at work early and greeted each tourist or member of Congress with the same smile.
Jacob Chestnut's brother Henry Chestnut told stories of Jacob's work ethic and spirit. Henry Chestnut recalled their trips to Myrtle Beach, S.C. "I would try to get Jake involved in a political conversation. He said: 'Henry, I don't have time for political things. I come to do my job, so that the politicians can do their job.' "
Henry Chestnut paused and, speaking to his brother, he said: "You did what you had to do. If you hadn't, you would not have been you."
Then Henry Chestnut looked into the audience to a section where Gingrich sat next to Thurmond and behind Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D), who sat near Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.), who was rows in front of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and across the church from Attorney General Janet Reno. "There's a bright side," Henry Chestnut said. "Even politicians got together. There is a bright side."
As the church exploded in applause, Henry Chestnut took three long steps and in slow, emotional motion saluted his brother.
Karen Chestnut, Jacob Chestnut's daughter, walked to the podium next, and her voice trembled as she thanked those in attendance, then asked for support to get through her talk.
"Right, now I'm going to talk about Daddy," she said. She called him a "down-home country boy who enjoyed living off his land." She told how he had taught himself Mandarin Chinese and collected flying maps. He took clothes to the political activist "whom many called homeless," who lived by the Document Room Door at the Capitol -- steps away from where Chestnut died.
"Daddy used to say the difficult we can take care of right away," she remembered. "The impossible takes a little longer."
When the funeral was over, two officers stood at either end of the coffin, turned it parallel to the aisle and pulled it out of the sanctuary. Behind, Wenling Chestnut took the arm of Abrecht and walked out solemnly and more slowly than when she arrived.
The family climbed into cars that followed hundreds of police cars with blinking lights to Arlington. The motorcade wound through the neighborhoods of Prince George's to Indian Head Highway, a popular commuter route into the District. From there, the line moved to Interstate 295 into the District, past the Capitol, down Constitution Avenue. It crossed Memorial Bridge and headed to Arlington's majestic entrance.
Tyrone Travers, of Accokeek, waited almost three hours for the procession to go by on Livingston Road. "I take my hat off to" law enforcement officers, Travers said. "They've been hurt. The least I can do is stand here."
Brenda Procter, 36, of Fort Washington, pushed two white candles into the earth at the foot of the Palmer Road traffic light. Next to the unlighted candles, she and her daughter Deirdre, 14, planted three small American flags.
People took off hats and saluted when the hearse that carried Chestnut's coffin passed. Many ran to the median to look. Traffic stopped. Some motorists sat on car roofs. For 25 minutes, the onlookers waved and gave thumbs-up signs to officers.
Inside the District lines, the crowd that gathered outside the U.S. Capitol was strangely hushed, long before the motorcade came down First Street.
"We owe this to him today," said lobbyist Keith Kirk, 34.
Down the street, U.S. Justice Department workers rushed to the curb as soon as they heard the phalanx of police sirens. Tourists heading into the National Museum of American History turned and sat down.
Constitution Avenue was lined with tourists and federal workers. One woman said the scene reminded her of the day the caisson carrying President John F. Kennedy rolled down the avenue toward Arlington.
The motorcade reached the grave site about 2 p.m. Chestnut's grave is at one of highest points in the cemetery, a place once known as Freedman's Village. Soon, Chestnut's family emerged from the cars and took their places in velvet-covered seats beneath an ivy-covered cherry tree. One thousand arms saluted as the Air Force Honor Guard carried the coffin to the grave site. A seven-person Air Force firing party shot three volleys, a 21-gun salute. Then a lone bugler played taps, and as the sad strains carried over the cemetery, Chestnut's wife, and many others, began weeping.
At 3:35 p.m., exactly one week since the shooting, a small group of Capitol Hill police officers and staff members grouped near a Capitol door for a prayer and silence.
"I don't know when I've ever been more proud of being a police officer," said Pvt. 1st Class R.R. Wilson, standing on the Capitol steps. She was part of the motorcade honoring Gibson the previous day. "All the police officers from all over the country who came, and all the little kids waving flags -- it was overwhelming," she said.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post