There was Bill O'Brien looking like the "Lord of the Manse," all 350 pounds of him standing in front of his 12-bedroom home at McLean Gardens peering out over his five gardens, where he raised flowers and vegetables in what might be one of Washington's most valuable pieces of property.
Like a lot of powerful men who are afraid of their own strength, O'Brien chooses the peaceful side of life. His quick, wide smile is sincere and his wit is fast and funny as he amuses people with his stories.
When he moved into McLean Gardens a few years back he almost became a bore telling about this wonderful peaceful place he found, a great beautiful spot for the children to run and play.
But then in 1976, a story in the newspaper reported that the CBI-Farimac Corp., owners of 723 apartment units along Wisconsin Avenue a few blocks north of the National Cathedral, planned to demolish the Gardens to make way for a $150 million development on the 33-acre site.
"This shook up a lot of people who lived here," O'Brien said, "So we formed the McLean Gardens Residents Association to put up some resistance."
When empty apartments offered a threat to his family's security, O'Brien got the keys from the people moving out.
"I felt like I was defending a homestead from the bad guys," he said, laughing, "I could get into about five apartments in my building; I had maybe roughly 15 rooms.
"It was for our own protection. Vagrants would show up looking for a flop and it was easy to get in."
He also decided to make the place looked lived in by improving the condition of the outside, which had become rundown, and in so doing discovered he loved gardening.
A legal battle went on until CBI-Fairmac Corp. sent out notices in March of 1978 ordering residents to vacate by the following Sept. 1.
"You should see what we did on that night of Sept 1," O'Brien said, laughing. "We had a candlelight parade along with about 80 other families and marched through the Gardens singing."
He lifts his voice in a ringing baritone: "We shall not be moved, just like a tree that's planted by the water, we shall not be moved."
Enjoying the memory of the rebellion, he said, "Then we burned the eviction notices."
A city boy raised in Queens, N.Y., O'Brien, his urban mind now agrarian, took the action of the owners as a personal attack against his effort to live in what he called "a quiet place for the kids, with woods across the street and a little stream flowing by."
"At one time I had 100 tomato plants, lettuce, cucumbers, onions, green peppers, Swiss chard, some garlic, butternut squash, and a few potatoes for old times' sake," he said.
"I could tell my two daughters before dinner, to go out and pick a salad, and they would come back with the makings, a nice fresh salad all summer long," and with a wide smile he added, "if I could have grown grapes and olives, I could have it made for wine vinegar and olive oil."
Referring always to the owners as "they", and with a sneer, O'Brien said, "They wanted us out of here; it was a war of nerves. They had the South Bronx mentality.You would come home and find they had locked the front door and you had to find another way in to your apartment.
"They boarded up windows, let the grass grow by only cutting it to a basic minimum," he added.
When harassed tenants began to move out, leaving vacant apartments in the building, O'Brien decided to take countermeasures to preserve the area.
An ex-Marine, O'Brien compared the action to a war, saying, "I was not in the trenches with other tenants fighting the battle to stay, my wife Gaby was, she was the secretary of the group." Then he raised his eyes, saying, "but you might say I was fighting guerrilla warfare."
Enjoying his memory of the battle, he said, "When they say my gardens sprouting they turned off the outside water, so I hooked up a hose to a basement washroom."
During his "guerrilla" days the owners were never quite sure who he was.
O'Brien liked to use the name Lawrence T. Forthwright; he would sign the name to invitations and Christmas cards, but his friends knew who it was.
One night a bartender friend of O'Brien was working a fancy private club in Georgetown when he overheard two well-dressed men standing at the bar who sounded like the owners of McLean Gardens complaining about the tenants there.
In a mischievous mood, the bartender said he had a friend in the tenants' group named Bill O'Brien.
"Never heard of him," one man said.
The bartender described O'Brien down to his New York accent.
Shaking his head, the man said, "I don't know any O'Brien, but there is a Lawrence T. Forthwright that fits that description."
O'Brien used to store his paintings in some of the empty rooms, and said with a wink, "Maybe we had a few more things stored in there, like on a hot summer day a few cool beers in a refrigeratr, or some extra milk or butter, a few preserves.
"It wasn't bad to have a little space on a rainy day."
A painter by day and a bartender a few nights a week, O'Brien said he still found time to work his inner-city farm and gardens.
"As they' became meaner I became more enthusiastic. I didn't know much about gardening, so I went to the library and took books out. When I finished there I went out and got more."
O'Brien expanded his gardens by quietly encroaching onto the run-down lawn. He cleared the overgrown traffic islands and planted begonias, petunias and marigolds.
"I knew I was licking them with flowers and vegetables," he said.
Moving onward like the homesteader he wanted to be, O'Brien crossed the street to an unkempt section of Glover-Archbold Park.
"Maybe I added 'O'Brien' to those two names; anyway I cleared out the deadwood in an area, made it nice by planting some flowers. It was beautiful. d
"The kids would ask, 'Can we go down to the secret place?'"
He rigged up a barbecue there, and invited about 50 people to come over for the Fourth of July.
"We had a great time, played softball and ate a lot.
"It was late and we were making some noise when someone came by in a car and said they were going to call the cops.
"I thought it was someone from management, so we began to sing the 'Star Spangled Banner.' Who can get arrested for that?"
Through his studies of gardening, O'Brien moved into the more sophisticated area of organic gardening and would tell bar patrons, "You have never tasted vegetables like this before."
Since the new McLean Gardens Residents Association has taken over, O'Brien feels, "I am no longer at war. You might say I'm pulling back in a quiet retreat."
The O'Brien family plans to stay and buy into the co-op, but the two-bedroom apartment might be getting a little crowded for a man who once had 12, and where will he store his begonias and petunias?
He winks, and answers, pointing to the ceiling and patting his pocket. "I still have a couple of keys."
When they finish renovating his building he said he would like to have a studio apartment on the top floor where the light is good.
"I still intend to keep some land for gardening," he added. "Do you know there are 30 million gardeners in America and if people were given a little land there could be 30 million more?"
When he finished describing his war, it did not seem at all violent.
It only made you feel that you would like to have him for a neighbor and the people who are buying the co-ops and moving in under the new group can only thank O'Brien for holding the ground for them while his wife Gaby and the tenants fought the legal war.