Five years after selling Washington's bus system to Metro, O. Ray Chalk is alive and well, presiding over a shrunken but far-flung financial domain that ranges from a Spanish-language newspaper in New York to a speculative share of a nonproducing California gold mine.
At age 70, nearly 22 years after his ebullient arrival in Washington, Chalk is grayer, but trim and younger looking than his age. He still wears stylish suits and impressive corporate titles. He talkes wistfully of the past and expansively of the future.
"I don't consider myself a public figure. . . I'm not an unhappy man. I've got a load off my shoulders," Chalk told a visitor recently, adding: "I haven't made any millions lately. And I haven't spent any."
He still controls more than $10 million worth of real estate here, mostly old streetcar barns and rights of way made surplus when the city's transit system became all-bus in 1962. Much of the property is heavily mortgaged.
D.C. Transit's main business now is renting and trying to sell those properties. Chalk did reach agreement to sell two Georgetown properties, south of M Street west of Wisconsin Avenue, for $4 million as the site for the new Georgetown Square shopping complex.
From 1956 to 1973, when D.C. Transit carried thousands of Washingtonians to and from work on its green and orange buses, Chalk was often on center stage. Constan tmedia attention made him one of the best known personalities in town. He was always ready with an apt, or outrageous, quote.
Chalk arrived in Washington viewed as something akin to a community savior, taking over the old Capital Transit Co. from its former owner. Louis E. Wolfson. The old company had become so unpopular following a 57-day strike in 1955 that Congress revoked its franchise.
At the outset, Chalk gave the company a new image and bought new buses. For the first few years, he establized fares at 20 cents a ride. Chalk's popularity peaked early, and then went downhill.
In later years, rightly or wrongly, he was perceived as one who juggled corporate assets, paid out excessive dividends, raised fares too high (ultimately to 40 cents, with even higher fares requested but denied) and allowed service to deteriorate.
The trend of higher-fares and falling patronage mirrored conditions in other cities, most of which turned earlier than Washington to public ownership of transit.
In D.C. Transit's last year of operation, 1972, it reported a net loss of $3.2 million, which had to be absorbed without resort to a public subsidy. For 1978, by contrast, the publicly owned Metrobus system is projecting an operating loss and public subsidy of $55.9 million.
"All I can say is that all my predictions (of the high cost of public ownership) are coming true," Chalk said. "I know it now more than ever, I was a prophet -- a prophet without profit."
He added; "I'm getting letters now asking me. "Where are you now that we need you?"
Chalk's corporate titles today are the same as they were five years ago -- chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer of both D.C. Transit and Diversified Media Inc., which owns the New York newspaper, El Diario-La Prensa.
To direct their operations, Chalk jets back and fourth between Washington and New York and his home at Palm Beach. Fla. He says he makes frequent business trips to Europe and personal trips to California to see his recently widowed daughter. In Washington, he shuns the party circuit, spending most his free time in a house on O Street in Georgetown.
Neither of his corporations is in robust financial health, according to reports they have filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Both have operated at a loss in recent years.
D.C. Transit told the SEC that an adverse decision in a pending Washington lawsuit "would bankrupt the company." Diversified Media reported that its "continued existence . . . is dependent upon the cooperation and forebearance of creditors . . . "
Through all this, Chalk himself remains apparently prosperous.
D.C. Transit reported to the SEC that in 1974 -- the last year for which figures were available -- it paid Chalk $72,384 in salary and it paid his wife, Claire, the corporate secretary, an other $38,043, for a total of $110,427. Diversified Media reported that in 1976 it paid Chalk $55,000.
These figures do not include dividends from American Airlines. The Chalks acquired about 200,000 shares of American's stock when it merged its Trans Caribbean Airways into American in 1971. That stock today is valued at around $4 million.
Chalk, born in England, was brought to this country when he was 5 years old. Educated as a lawyer, he invested in New York real estate and in 1945 bought some war surplus aircraft to start his airline. It prospered, carrying thousands of Puerto Ricans to and from New York at discount fares.
In 1956, after Congress revoked the Capital Transit franchise, Chalk acquired the company's assets for $13.5 million of which only $500,000 was in cash. The balance was in loans paid off partly from money in the Capital Transit treasury and partly from earnings.
The $44.9 million that D.C. Transit got from Metro for its properties was not clear profit. Most went to pay debts. Some was invested in Lamar Towers, a high-rise apartment house in Houston. And there was the California gold mine.
According to a 1977 report it made to the SEC, D.C. Transit recently formed a subsidiary the D.C. Mining Co., in partnership with someone named Rounseville W. Schaum, not otherwise identified to attempt to revive the Hite mine in California's Mariposa County, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
For its $65,000 investment in the mine, D.C. Transit told the SEC, it will get half of whatever profits the mine may earn, but will bear all of whatever loss may occur.
An individual familiar with current mining activities in Mariposa County said the Hite mine reached its production peak in the 19th century, and was closed down before World War II. Recent exploration at the mine was suspended for the winter, the source reported, but the word is out that it will be resumed in the spring.
The reaction, if any, by D.C. Transit stockholders to such corporate investments is not known. Around 1960, in the company's peak dividend years, a share of stock solo for as much as $14.37 a share. By 1969, it had skidded to $2. Currently the bid price on the Philadelphia Stock Exchange is 12 1/2 cents.
Chalk and his wife are D.C. Transit's biggest stockholders, owning about one-third of all the shares.
One minority stockholder, Helen Howard, filed suit in New York in 1971 seeking $18.5 million in damages from Chalk and others charging that management decisions dictated by Chalk were "motivated and dictated by the self interest of the controlling stockholders (the Chalks)."
Among other things, Howard contended that Chalk took steps that damaged D.C. Transit in order to maximize his own personal profit from the Trans Caribbean merger into American Airlines. At one time, Trans Caribbean held the majority of stock in D.C. Transit, which was spun off to clear the way for the merger.
In papers filed with the New York Supreme Court in Manhattan, Chalk has vehemently denied the accusations, contending D.C. Transit was managed in the best interest in all shareholders.
D.C. Transit faces another, and more imminent, threat from another lawsuit in Washington -- the case that the company has said could force it into bankruptcy.
The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in 1973, in cases brought by the D.C. Democratic Central Committee and the Black United Front, among others, that the company's last fare increase (from 32 cents to 40 cents) in 1970 resulted in excessive profits. It said those profits somehow should be paid back to bus riders.
The Court of Appeals also ruled that D.C. Transit's riders, not its stockholders, should have benefited from the rising value of the company's surplus real estate -- still, for the most part, properties owned by the company.
The precise amount and method of repayment perhaps a subsidy of lower fares -- is still being considering by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Commission, acting under the court's orders.
Complex proceedings in the cases fill more than 15,000 pages of hearing transcripts. A decision is expected within months.
In papers filed with the SEC, D.C. Transit has said the highest figure it could owe in these cases is $33.4 million -- far more than the company's own estimate in 1977 of the value of its holdings, $14.2 million.
The lobby of Chalk's suite in the old red brick carbarn near Key Bridge in Georgetown looked much the same as when it was the bus system's headquarters.
The fayer door bears three signs: "D.C. Transit," "Law Offices: O. Roy Chalk," "O. Roy Chalk international, Inc.," a travel agency. An oil portrait of a younger Chalk, his arms folded, stares from the wall. Two typists earnestly tap away at electric keyboards.
As the visitors were ushered into his private office, Chalk arose behind his ovel shaped Louis XIV-type desk with a warm greeting. He wore an impeccably tailored, vested gray flannel suit and striped rep tie. The pleated shirt he once favored was gone, replaced by a plain-breasted blue.
On the desk was a model streetcar, lettered "Silver Sightseer" -- a depiction of a full-sized car Chalk had rebuilt and air conditioned, to haul tourists up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Appropriately, the model was derailed. For Chalk was forced by law --reluctantly, he said -- to replace the city's streetcars with buses. The last trolley ran in 1962.
When D.C. Transit ceased operations, the company agreed to pay the city government $3 million to pay for the removal of all remaining tracks. When D.C. Transit failed to make a scheduled payment of $1 million last year, the city went to court to collect.D.C. Transit paid and the suit dropped.
What is the future of D.C. Transit's real estate? Chalk would like to sell the idle Brookland garage to Metro, and the old East Capitol Street car barn near the D.C. Armory to some investor who might capitalize on the potential charm of its turreted Victorian architecture.
What is Chalk's main business activity now? Trying to market, through a new D.C. Transit subsidiary called the National Energy and Security Co. (Nesco), a French invention he claims will detect even the tiniest flaws in a pipeline, no matter how deep the line may be buried.
During the conversation, Chalk turned wistful. He pointed to a photograph of John F. Kennedy, autographed "in appreciation and warm regards."
Chalk wanted to be sure the visitors saw a reproduction of a painting of President Theodore Roosevelt, and take note of whom the picture came from: Richard M. Nixon, as a Christmas gift from the White House.
Many VIPs got copies of the TR painting, "but I don't know why I got mine" from Nixon, Chalk said. "I always opposed him."
Chalk was, in fact, a substantial contributor to the late Hubert H. Humphrey's campaign in 1968, the year he lost the presidency to Nixon.
Another political friend, Chalk said, is New York's newly elected mayor, Edward I. Koch. "I supported him," Chalk said. "I have the balance of (political) power in New York."
Whatever political clout Chalk may wield comes from El Diario-La Prensa. A morning tabloid modeled after the Daily News, El Diario was a logical extension of Chalk's business activity when he bought it in 1962. He would sell papers to the Puerto Ricans who flew his airline between San Juan and New York.
In recent years, I Diario has not been profitable, and in 1974 Chalk shut down its printing plant on Monhattan's lower West Side, paying employees more than $1 million in severance. The paper is now printed under contract in Connecticut and trucked into the city.
This year, Chalk said, he expects a profit from the newspaper. But the corporation that owns the newspaper, Diversified Media Inc., had to borrow $300,000 from D.C. Transit to pay its debts.
Of Metro, Chalk had little to say. He said he recently met Theodore C. Lutz, Metro's general manager, and found im "very nice -- I was impressed."
But Chalk has no opinion about the new Washington subway, because he never has ridden it.
Why not? "I was never invited," Chalk replied.