The funeral cortege slowly threaded its way from Mount Vernon to a small cemetery in Arlington, a two-mile-long procession that at one point stalled traffic on the Beltway and I-395 for a good 20 minutes.
The more than 200 people who joined the procession last week had come to honor John Dolph Avery, one of the first paramedics in the District of Columbia.
As one friend looked over the crowd, he said, "John would have loved it."
Avery, 39, who lived in Falls Church, Va., was killed in an auto accident early on July 12. Fairfax County police said that the car he was driving went out of control and overturned on Fort Hunt Road near Pauls Springs Parkway. Avery was pronounced dead at the scene, according to police.
Rescuers responding to the accident recognized the vehicle as Avery's -- red, 1968 Chevelle equipped with oxygen, medical supplies and six radios that picked up fire, police and rescue channels.
To his admirers, he was Big John, Dr. John, Man Mountain or Big Red -- a robust, boisterous man with a "Paul Bunyan-like legend" among the many paramedics and emergency medical technicians who work in area emergency rooms and ambulances.
To his detractors -- and even friends admit he had more than a few -- he was an arrogant, domineering know-it-all.
But to friends and enemies alike he was a man with a crusade: to make the Washington area a showcase for the skills of paramedics and emergency medical technicians and to make those health care workers the best in the nation.
"You either loved him or hated him," admitted J.J. Dillion, who worked with Avery in training area paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs).
But even his adversaries concede that if they were in an accident, they would have wanted Big John there.
"On the scene of an accident he was better than a doctor," said District ambulance supervisor B.O. Robinson.
Like nearly 150 other EMTs and paramedics who work for the D.C. fire department, John Avey worked a grueling schedule.
Often it meant 16-hours days, a double shift on his ambulance calls. Calls included cutting accident victims out of smashed cars, administering oxygen to elderly patients with chest pains, bandaging frightened children who had broken bones and consoling frantic relatives. Sometimes responding to ambulance calls meant playing peacemaker to angry citizens.
Even when he was not on duty, Avery would stop to assist at any accident he heard about on his radios. Occasionally he was known to cruise the beltway looking for accidents. His face was a familiar one in emergency rooms throughout the Washington area.
Avery, who grew up in a military family and was a Marine photographer for three years, became interested in firefighting while he was a student at the University of Maryland. During the year he attended the university, he worked part-time at a small Maryland fire department. In 1966 he dropped out of school and took a full-time job with the Falls Church Volunteer Fire Department.
"It was love at first sight. He was obsessed and consumed with being a firefighter," said his ex-wife Patricia Soucy Avery.
Avery joined the D.C. fire department in 1968 and was trained as an emergency medical technician. In 1976, when the fire department started a training program for paramedics, Avery was one of the first to enroll. Avery became paramedic No. 001 in the District and No. 10 in the state of Virginia, and he never let anyone forget it.
Sgt. Thomas Mobley, a paramedic with the Mount Vernon Fire Department, met Avery 11 years ago while they were taking first aid courses. "Nobody felt quite secure inthe amount of training when we first started with fire and rescue services," said Mobley, adding that Avery was one of the first to recognize those deficiencies and push for better training.
Avery even learned to repair the manikins used in first aid courses. "I know of no one that has ever been so dedicated to a profession," Mobley said.
Mobley and Avery became close friends, and in 1974 he enlisted Avery's aid in teaching EMT courses at the Northern Virginia Community College. Several students who were in Avery's classes remember him as a patient teacher, but one who refused to tolerate inperfection.
Nancy Anderson, a former student of Avery's, said Avery "never stopped pushing. The only time I ever knew him to be hard-nosed was when it came to patient care." Then, Anderson said, Avery would remind his students that their skills could save a life.
His students weren't the only ones who felt John Avery's impatience to get things done, and done right. Colleagues throughout the area vividly remember the many letters he typed to top officials in the D.C. fire department, urging them to adopt his ideas or trying to justify his actions.
"If he thought he saw something he knew was right, he didn't care who he said it to, and that agitated some people," said Maurice Kilby, head of ambulance services for the D.C. Fire Department.
"Sometimes John wouldn't express himself in ways that were acceptable," said Joe Henry, a friend who is a paramedic with the D.C. Fire Department. Another friend called him "a bull in a china shop when it came to tact and diplomacy."
Others remember Avery's flamboyance. Midge Moreau, a nurse at the Washington Hospital Center, met Avery about seven years ago when she was working at George Washington University Hospital.
"The first time I ever saw John Avery he had a backwards baseball cap, those ear muffs that drown out the siren noise and two stethoscopes -- one around his neck and one hanging off his belt," Moreau recalled.
Around Avery's ample waist, she said, was a belt weighted down with carpenter's pouches, each containing a different set of medical equipment from hemostats to scissors to bandages.
"The man looked like a walking ambulance," Moreau said.
To many, John Avery was an enigma -- a man who was built like a bull, wore T-shirts with risque messages, baked cakes, worked intricate neddlepoint designs for relaxation, and hung toy fire engine curtains in his den. Behind his macho bravado was a marshmallow heart, said his former wife.
Avery's girlfriend, Elizabeth Knight, said he was extremely proud of being a paramedic because it was something he knew he could do better than almost anyone else.
In the days following the funeral, friends and relatives could not decide whether to speak of the strapping six feet tall, red-haired man who weighed nearly 300 pounds, in the past tense or present tense. But all were full of adjectives for him.
Rich Adams, who delivered the eulogy, called him "a gentle giant."
He looked like Santa Claus and had a voice like a foghorn, some said.
"I learned more from him in the last six months than in the previous three years," said Ken Jacobs, Avery's last partner. Jacobs, added that he had no problems with Big John's "take charge" personality.
Other paramedics at the fire station on Sherman Avenue near Howard University credit Avery with pushing constantly for better EMT training. He was a very vocal critic of the ambulance system, which the EMTs say is considered "the stepchild" of the fire department and the first to succumb to budget troubles.
One friend recalled that Avery complained mostly about the dearth of advanced life support ambulances in the city, that the ambulance service was run by senior firefighter who did not have adequate experience riding the city's ambulances and the ambulance radio dispatchers were not adequately trained to screen calls and often tied up the four super-equipped vehicles on non-serious calls.
His patients always came first, his friends agreed. He often complained about supply shortages, and was known as the "Robin Hood" who would snitch supplies from hospital emergency rooms when the ambulances ran out.
Despite his hectic schedule, Avery always managed to find time for his family. He was divorced and had custody of his 11-year-old daughter Lee and his son Scott, 9.
During the last few weeks before he died, Avery was working double shifts, teaching and living part time at his parents home in Mount Vernon, helping his mother care for his father who recently suffered a heart attack.
"I don't think Daddy was the kind of person who liked to be alone," his daughter Lee said last week. "He liked to spread himself around."