More than a thousand friends, followers and admirers praised and celebrated Ralph Waldo (Petey) Greene yesterday in a touching funeral service that had more people laughing or smiling than crying.
Charles Ramsey, a United Planning Organization spokesman who was a close friend of Greene and had appeared on many of the Emmy-award winning broadcaster's television shows, solemnly read Greene's obituary, then led the gathering in reciting the whimsical "signature" poem with which Greene closed every show.
Sounding like a Sunday morning church service, the crowd packed into the red brick Union Wesley A.M.E. Zion Church in Northeast Washington repeated after Ramsey: "Just grab your head and make a fist and listen to me and remember this. I'll tell it to the hot and I'll tell it to the cold, I'll tell it to the young and I'll tell it to the old . . . I don't want no laughing. I don't want no crying. And most of all, no signifying. This is Petey Greene's Washington."
Greene, who was a lifetime Washington resident, rose from the depths of poverty, crime, drug addiction and alcoholism to a successful career in broadcasting and community activism. He hosted WDCA-TV's "Petey Greene's Washington," WOL radio's "Rapping with Petey Greene," and a weekly talk show on WYCB-AM radio broadcast from a Georgia Avenue nightclub.
Greene, who had worked in broadcasting for more than 20 years, died last Tuesday, at age 53, of cancer.
Known and loved for his biting candor, he talked with street hustlers and politicians, treating all alike. He once jokingly called himself the "Godfather" of Washington for his ability to fulfill the needs of the dozens of people who asked for his help each week.
One of his former radio colleagues, Martha Shephard, said Greene's power was tied to his forthright use of a microphone. "When he asked city agencies and churches and individuals to help him help people get heat in their homes or feed their families they knew that if they didn't he would talk about them on his radio or T.V. program," she said.
It was Greene's habit to bring city leaders to task or embarrass them on the air. But yesterday Mayor Marion Barry, D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, and other city officials said that was only part of the "real" Petey Greene.
"Petey used to talk about me . . . but he and I were very, very good friends," said Barry, who spoke first in tribute to Greene at yesterday's ceremony. "We spent a lot of time together talking about social commitment. He wanted to be a role model. He said he drove a Cadillac and bragged about all the money he had because he wanted young people to know that you don't have to steal and sell drugs to drive a Cadillac and have a pocket full of hundred dollar bills. Petey Greene was smart. He knew how to get a message across."
Barry declared yesterday Petey Greene Memorial Day. At least two dozen other civic leaders and businessmen attended the funeral, including City Council Chairman Dave Clarke, Council members Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) and Wilhelmina Rolark (D-Ward 8) and Melvin Roberts, owner of Melvin's Seafood restaurant. Police officials who attended the event informally estimated the crowd at about 1,500.
"Petey Green was not particularly regular in his attendance, but he was one of the greatest Christian workers I have ever known," said the Rev. Lewis Anthony, assistant pastor at the Union Wesley church, where Greene was a member. "He fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty and visited the prisoner in prison. Like the Lord Jesus, he went into the ghettos and told drug addicts that God could clean you up. . . . He fought the fight of faith."
Fauntroy, who was a close associate of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., gave Greene's family a flag that was flown over the Capitol on Sunday, King's birthday. "America needs to wave a flag for the legend that was Petey Greene. If King was a dreamer of the impossible dream, Petey Greene was the epitome of the impossible dream becoming a living reality.
City leaders were not the only ones anxious to tell what they knew about Greene.
A 78-year-old Northeast man said Greene "bridged the generation gap" and an elderly Southeast woman said that "he got a lot of his wisdom from talking to us old folks." A city drug rehabilitation expert called him "a man of the people, a catalyst." Greene's television and radio producer, Laverne Jackson, said "Petey was strong enough to say what needed to be said."
After all the tributes, the bronze casket containing Petey Greene's body was buried atop a hill overlooking the District from the Lincoln Memorial Cemetery in Suitland.
As ashes and dust were sprinkled over the casket, the words of Fauntroy rang in the ears of many there. "Petey Greene is not dead," Fauntroy said. "He lives in the hearts of all who loved him."