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, who had made a name for himself as one of the top paramedics in the Washington area.
As one friend looked over the crowd, a thought occurred to him: "John would have loved it."
To his admirers, he was Big John, Dr. John, or Big Red -- a robust, boisterous man who, at 39, had become a "Paul Bunyan-like legend" among the many paramedica 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, loud-mouthed, domineering know-it-all.
"You either loved him or hated him," admitted J. J. Dillon, who worked with Avery in training area paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs).
But to friends and enemies alike he was a man with a crusade -- to make the Washington area a show-case for the skills of paramedics and emergency medical technicians and to make those health care workers the best in the nation.
And even his adversaries concede that if they were in an accident, they would have wanted John Avery there to care for them.
On the scene of an accident, he was better than a doctor," said District ambulance supervisor B. O. Robinson.
Avery, like the more than 200 paramedics and nearly 5,000 EMTs in the metropolitan area, worked a grueling schedule. His job was to give emergency medical care -- and for John Avery, friends say, that meant stopping anytime and anywhere he thought he was needed.
Often it meant 16-hour days, a double-shift on his ambulance calls for the D.C. Fire Department, teachintg two or three classes to young paramedics or EMT's and then when his formal work was over, stopping to help a colleague pull an accident victim from an overturned car, administer oxyen to an elderly patient or console frantic relatives at the scene of an accident.
The night before he died in a car accident in Fairfax County, friends say, Avery spent the early hours of the morning, long after his regular ambulance shift had ended, helping with at least two emergency medical situations.
Avery was killed, according to Fairfax County police, early July 12 when the car he was driving apparently went out of control and overturned on Fort Hunt Road near Paul Springs Parkway. Rescuers responding to the accident around 7 o'clock that morning recognized the vehicle as Avery's -- a red 1968 Chevelle equpped with oxygen, medical supplies and six radios that picked up fire, police and rescue channels.
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, where he soon became interested in emergency medicine, according to family and friends.
Two years later, Avery joined the D.C. Fire Department and was trained as an emergency medical technician. In 1976, when the fire department started a 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 when they were taking first aid courses. "Nobody felt quite secure in the amount of training when we first started with fire and rescue services," said Mobley. As a result, Mobley said, Avery was one of the first to recognize those deficiences and push for better training for paramedics, a cause he continued to champion until his death. Avery's enthusiasm, and his insistence on quality training and care, carried over to all parts of his job, according to friends.
"I know of no one that has ever been so dedicated to a profession," Mobley said.
About eight years ago, Mobley enlisted Avery's aid in teaching EMT courses at Northern Virginia Community College. Through those courses, many of the EMT's throughout the area came in touch with Avery, and sever former students remember Avery as a patient teacher -- but one who refused to tolerate imperfection.
Nancy Anderson, a former student who is a nurse in Fairfax County, recalled that 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, he would sternly remind his students that their skill could save a life.
His students weren't the only ones who felt Avery's impatience to get things done, and done right. Colleagues throughout the area vividly remember the many letters he sent 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.
"His patients always came first," added an emergency room technician at a D.C. hospital, who said Avery often complained about supply shortages on the ambulances. "He was a thief.He'd lift what he needed for the ambulances. He was like a Robin Hood."
But others remember another side of John Avery.
"The first time I ever saw John Avery -- . . . he had on a backwards baseball cap, those ear muffs that drown out the siren noise . . . two stethoscopes -- one around his neck and one handing off his belt," recalled Midge Moreau, a District nurse who met Avery about seven years ago.
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 with a laugh.
During the last few weeks of his life, Avery was living part-time with his parents in Mount Vernon, helping his mother care for his father who recently suffered a heart attack.
In between those visits, squeezed into a tight schedule of double shifts and teaching, Avery always managed to find time for his family. Avery, who was divorced, had custody of his daughter Lee, 11, and his son Scott, 9.
In the days after Avery's funeral, friends and relatives could not decide whether to speak of the strapping six-foot-tall, red-haired man who weighed nearly 300 pounds in the past or present.
To many he was an enigma. Macho bravado covering a marshmallow heart, as his former wife described him. A man who looked like a bull and wore T-shirts with risque messages -- and baked cakes and worked intricate needlepoint designs for relaxation. A man who hung toy fire engine curtains in his den, and who had such an effect on the people he loved that his former wife and his girlfriend became close friends.
"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."