You didn't have to know Roy I. Dabney Jr. to know what he meant to Prince George's County.
As a relative newcomer here, I don't recall ever meeting the 57-year-old bank executive and former County Council member. But when he died of a heart attack at his home in Kettering on Thursday, it was easy to see that much of Prince George's was in shock.
"I am numb and heart struck," County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) said. "It's almost impossible for me to conceive his loss. He was a wonderful man, sensitive, tender, always easygoing, decent to a fault. He was a dear friend of mine."
Throughout the county, many weekend festivities came to a halt for a few moments of silence in Dabney's memory. There's no wonder why Dabney was so loved. From the time that he and his wife moved from the District of Columbia to Prince George's in 1970, he immersed himself in county life.
In 1977, he became the first African American president of the Prince George's Chamber of Commerce. He volunteered for nearly two decades as chairman of the Washington Metropolitan Area United Cerebral Palsy Association's annual telethon. From 1980 to 1982, he served on the County Council.
Then, the county executive and council appointed Dabney to the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, the powerful bi-county agency that spends millions each year on parks, historic sites and recreation in Prince George's and Montgomery counties.
Dabney became vice president of the commission in 1993 and once served as acting chairman. "He was like Mr. Prince George's County," Commission Chairman Elizabeth Hewlett said.
In 1991, the chamber officially gave Dabney that title, naming him Prince Georgian of the Year.
Though he stood 6 feet 2 inches tall, Dabney had a gentle, soft-spoken demeanor that immediately put people at ease, his friends said. He operated mostly behind the scenes, serving on dozens of academic, business and civic advisory boards and commissions. At First Baptist Church of Glenarden, he was a 27-year member, finance committee chairman, a deacon and a trustee.
"His death is a huge loss to Prince George's County and our church," said the Rev. John K. Jenkins, pastor of First Baptist.
Dabney's entry into politics in 1980 made him part of the first wave of African Americans to gain political influence in the days when the county and its power structure were predominantly white. He became only the third African American to serve on the County Council that year.
Floyd Wilson, the first African American on the council, clearly remembers the night in 1980 when the 11-member council met at 6 p.m. at a Clinton restaurant one evening to discuss the Democratic Party's three recommendations for the seat vacated by Francis G. Francois. Party officials had whittled down a list of 20 potential candidates.
Wilson and Deborah Marshall, the other African American council member, pushed hard for Dabney. They argued that the demographics of the county had changed and that the leadership should reflect that change. The members talked, drank and argued for 11 hours, ultimately agreeing on Dabney.
"Roy knew everybody," Wilson recalled. "He was very popular. It wasn't like you were talking about a stranger."
It didn't take long for Dabney to win all of his colleagues' respect.
"He appreciated other people's opinions," said Frank P. Casula, the mayor of Laurel and, from 1974 to 1994, a member of the council. "Whenever they spoke, he listened. He had a good temperament for the job."
Reginald A. Parks, a spokesman for Curry, was fresh out of college in 1981 when he got a job as Dabney's legislative aide. Parks had been volunteering on Wilson's staff when Dabney's hired him.
"The guy had the biggest heart and best personality, bar none," Parks said. "I never heard him raise his voice. He was slow to speak. He always wanted to make sure he had his information."
During his 33 years at First Union National Bank, Dabney worked his way up from bank teller to vice president. In the African American community, he was the one to call if you needed financial advice or help with a bank loan. Meticulous with finances, Dabney served as treasurer of various civic and political groups, including Curry's campaign for county executive.
But in April, the bank downsized, and Dabney lost his job. He was trying to ease back into the job market, according to his wife, Ruth.
Ruth Dabney said that she gladly shared her husband with the community but that there were times she urged him--to no avail--to slow down.
"He enjoyed what he did," she said. "He enjoyed doing for others."
But no matter how crowded his days were, she said, he always spent time with the family, which included a son, Roy, 33, and a daughter, Claudia, 39. He was the kind of husband who drove his wife to the mall and waited in the car, without complaint, no matter how long she browsed and shopped, Ruth Dabney said.
Her heart is broken, but Ruth Dabney finds strength in her memories. She chuckles when she remembers her proud husband taking his infant son to their first drag race. Dad stuffed diapers, baby powder and bottles in a brown paper bag to avoid carrying the diaper bag.
"It's going to be real hard without him," she said. "He was an extra special person."
Dabney spent last Wednesday night at a celebration for retiring School Superintendent Jerome Clark. He left for home about 10 p.m. and laid out the suit he planned to wear to the planning commission meeting the next day. He never made it.
Dabney's death reminds us how unpredictable life is and how quickly it can end. But his unselfish life should show us, too, that a legacy of service can live on.
A memorial service and viewing will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. tomorrow at First Baptist Church of Glenarden, 3600 Brightseat Rd. in Landover. A viewing at the church also will be held from 10 to 11 a.m. Friday, followed by the funeral.
To comment or suggest a story idea, feel free to write me at 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md., 20772; send me an e-mail at frazierL@washpost.com; or call me at 301-952-2083.
CAPTION: Roy I. Dabney Jr., a banker for 33 years, also served on commissions and in charities.