Virility leaps from his photograph. The shoulders and forearms are heavily muscled beneath the casualness of a rumpled shirt. The neck revealed by the soft open collar is thick and strong, supporting a head almost leonine. Puffs of soft black and white hair frame a receding hairline, and a scratchy beard completes the masculine aura.
But wait! The eyes are so soft that their love and intelligence seem magnified by the thick eyeglasses he wears. Could this be a man who was not afraid to show his generosity, who dared to temper steel with softness?
The man in the photograph, psychiatrist Leon Whitt, died of cancer the other day. He was 56. An unusual coterie of people who knew and deeply loved him stood up on Thursday to clap their hands for his life. As the rain came down in sheets, people of wealth and poverty, old and young, black and white, hurried inside a downtown church to sit on mahogany pews and celebrate him.
Leon Whitt was a Washington boy, born in an unadorned house on Ninth Street NW. But people came from as far away as Europe to note his gift of "transforming tears into precious jewels."
Ex-patients stepped forward to speak of him, unmindful of such niceties as doctor-patient relationships. His colleagues, children, stepchildren and friends were moved to poetry by his life. Friends such as Washington's home-town musician Buck Hill, one of the most commanding tenor saxophonists working today, played the jazz that Whitt loved at his wake.
Dr. Whitt had been graduated from Howard University Medical School and had completed his psychiatric residency immediately thereafter. His psychiatric credentials were impeccable: a diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, Johns Hopkins Medical faculty member, and so forth. But that wasn't his secret. His secret, during his 25 years of private practice and tenure on several medical faculties, was that he really cared about people and had the gift of transmitting that caring in such a way that they felt and responded to it.
Perhaps the most striking illustration of that caring came from Peggy Cooper Cafritz, who chairs the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
She said that she had become a patient of Dr. Whitt's at 19, and joked that the psychiatrist called her the "premier member of my looney brigade." She spoke "on behalf of his many patients . . . ."
"I know this man saved many of our lives by freeing us from ourselves," she said. "He gave to me the will to run with gusto and catch my desires . . . . He helped me recognize my legacy. He dug and dug and he finally found buried there my character. He graduated me from college. He graduated me from law school. He energized me to care for others. He opened the door and made me an insider in the voyage of life."
When she was 21 and just out of George Washington University, Cafritz raised more than $2 million for Workshops for Careers in the Arts, which she co-founded, and which in 1974 spawned the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
"He was an inveterate giver," said Dr. Eva Towns, who had known Whitt since they were fellow students at Howard. "He never cared that his love and generosity would be interpreted as weakness."
I remember that generosity. He once went out of his way to purchase paintings from an artist I know at a time when the artist was having trouble in his life and needed money.
In recent years, even when the cancer was eating away his strength, he continued his work as medical director of the Youth Day Treatment Program at the South Community Mental Health Center operated by the D.C. Department of Human Services. There he worked with children who couldn't cope in regular school, due to emotional problems, and had been referred for outpatient mental-health care.
And it was with these children that his life seemed to come full circle. He had come from poor circumstances, as did most of them. He understood their bewilderment and pains and joys, and he was determined that their poverty and trouble should not erase their right to be well and happy.
Cafritz put it this way: "No matter how tormented their souls, no matter how blind their minds, Dr. Whitt instilled in each of his patients an ecstasy for life. This was his mission."