They met in a cemetery at an undertakers' picnic. He is known as the loudest man in town, a genius of bellicosity.She is known as the power behind the mouth.
Together, Calvin and Wilhelmina Rolark, through his newspaper and her City Council seat, provide a consistent platform for the needs and thoughts of Washington's grass-roots citizens. Yesterday, a group of friends, organized by two local television producers, held a roast to highlight their contribution -- both unspoken and outspoken.
"Calvin graduated from Prairie View State College in Texas and all of us who know Calvin know a B.S. degree for him was the real thing," observed Tex Gathings, chairman of the communicative arts department at the University of the District of Columbia. "And his M.S. degree not only means more of the same, but it's piled deeper and higher."
The format of a roast, where a string of acquaintances stand up to say something humorous about the honoree, has become a fixed American entertainment and fund-raising device. Dean Martin may be credited with boosting the fad, and last year on NBC roasted such personages as Joe Namath, Betty White, George Burns and Suzanne Somers. Recently the same network allowed a roast of comic book heroes in prime time.
Roasts have now invaded such sleepy hamlets as Albany, Ga., where last year Charles Kirbo and Robert Strauss flew in a private plane to honor Hamilton Jordan. Yesterday's program, held at the Masonic Temple Hall on U Street N.W., gave Mayor Marion Barry, former mayor Walter Washington, newspaper editor Lillian Wiggins, former Redskin Roy Jefferson, and community activist Ron Clark of RAP, Inc., a chance to bruise the Rolarks and each other.
"Calvin grew up in Texarkana, Tex., on the border of Texas and Arkansas and people there used to debate what state they really came from," said Barry. "Calvin always wanted to be on the rich side. Now he has all the money but Calvin wouldn't tell you, Wilhelmina has all the money but Calvin wouldn't tell you, Wilhelmina has all the influence. She has the vote, he has the voice."
Taking up the same theme of the Rolarks' power, Walter Washington pointed to the City Council Rolark, saying, "That's the last word. And I have a situation like that at home and it took a long time to understand that. So when Calvin runs up and says, 'You're my main man, let's do this,' listen to what Wilhelmina says."
Both the new and the old mayor took the opportunity to gripe about the city's housing crisis, specifically their personal crises. "Since this city doesn't give a house to the mayor, Effi and I have been looking -- In Anacostia," said Barry. "Beautiful," shouted Calvin Rolark, who lives in Anacostia, the district his wife represents.
"If you can help me, Calvin, I need a three-bedroom with a basement," continued Barry. Washington added, "Since this is community day, fix him up a little place."
Unlike the televised roasts, which move along rapidly with polished barbs, the off-camera ones are long-winded with folksy, sentimental and blue humor. Rolark was remembered as the angry man who sued the existing agencies (his wife was the attorney) to have the United Black Fund established for inner-city charities. Since 1969 the UBF has grown to a $835,000-a-year agency, which is featured in Forbes magazine's current article on the $9 bilion-dollar-a-year charity industry. Both Rolarks were remembered as people who had given college students tuition out of their own pockets. Rolark's impromptu boxing skills were remembered by several people.
"There isn't a person in this room I haven't opposed at some time," said Calvin Rolark. More than 600 people attended the roast, paid $10 for the buffet of chicken, roast beef, sweet potatoes and salad, and picked up a free copy of Rolark's weekly newspaper, The Washington Informer, by the door.
The Rolark newspaper was the object of City Councilwoman Hilda Mason's satire. "The newspaper boasts of unbiased news," said Mason, reading a mockup of a tabloid she called "Washington Think." "Each page has a story on Wilhelmina Rolark." Oral Suer, vice president of the United Way, decided to define Rolark. "He's a monopolist, a man who keeps both elbows on the theater seat," said Suer, and "a punctualist, a man who guesses how late the other person will be."
E. Fannie Granton, an editor in the Washington bureau of Jet Magazine, used a story about Andrew Jackson to describe Rolark's malapropisms.
"Once Andrew Jackson was staying at the Wormley Hotel and he went to a tailor for a new set of underwear and uniforms. He finished them and approached Jackson in the lobby with the clothes. Jackson turned around and said, 'Who are you?' The man replied, 'I'm the man who made your britches.' And Jackson turned to the crowd, announcing, 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is Major Britches.'"
Seated behind two rows of roasters, who were introduced by radio personality Jerry Phillips of WHUR-FM and television anchor Delores Handy of WTTG, the Rolarks laughed freely throughout the presentations. They had learned about the roast from a radio ad they heard while driving across the 11th Street Bridge one morning last week.
"I was shocked. I feel uncomfortable at these things. But I am resigned to it now," said Rolark. Added his wife, "I don't mind being made fun of. I had a mother who did it just to keep you in place. No one can top her."