John W. Tolbert Jr. still drives his brown 1977 Plymouth station wagon to most monthly meetings of the Leesburg Town Council's Environmental Advisory Commission. Despite an occasional ache and pain, he still makes it to services most Sundays at St. James Episcopal Church, where he has been a member for more than 50 years.
But he cautions that at his age--94 tomorrow--he doesn't plan more than a day or so in advance.
That didn't stop Tolbert from floating the idea a while back that he should resume the Town Council seat he held for 14 years before retiring a decade ago. When an investigation into alleged misuse of a town credit card resulted in the resignation of a council member, he let it be known that he was available.
"Some people raised their eyebrows, I know, but I said, 'Why not me?' " Tolbert said one recent afternoon as he reclined in a chair at his condominium along the West Park golf course. "I knew I could do it." He "greatly frowned upon" the credit card episode, he said, and he figured it might be time for him to take "a more active role" in the community again.
Besides, he said at the time, "I know this town well, and I know more about what's going on than [some council members] do." It is easy to see how he finds out: Wherever he goes on his errands around town--the post office, the grocery store--almost everyone seems to know him, and he can hardly get on with his business until he has exchanged greetings with all of them.
Tolbert, who has lived in Leesburg since 1949 and has a bridge named after him over the Dulles Greenway, did not win the appointment, which went to Planning Commission member Mervin Jackson, a young fellow of 69. But Tolbert remains a regular at council meetings via cable TV.
Tolbert spends most days tidying his immaculate two-bedroom condo. There are dozens of trophies, plaques, framed letters and ribbons to dust in one corner near the sliding glass doors that look out to the golf course. As befits a retired chef who once owned his own restaurant, he cooks most of his own meals--usually making crusts for apple pies and gravy for mashed potatoes from scratch. As he moves around in his small yellow kitchen, sink to stove, stove to refrigerator, he launches into the memories, which fill photo albums stacked neatly under a coffee table.
His first restaurant, in Charles Town, was called Tolbert's Cafe, and on the advice of his father--who had never been too keen on his son's ambition to cook for a living--he closed it as the Depression hit. Later he cooked at the Laurel Brigade Inn and then for the girls at Madeira School in McLean--he could tell endless stories about the pranks they played on him, the advice they sought from him.
"I listened to those girls at Madeira when they had a problem, and I would tell them just like a father would," he said.
Sometimes his attention wanders among the memories. But when he is pressed for details of a particular event, he will pipe up with the exact date and time. He married "the lovely Virginia Dorothy Gaskins at 4 p.m. Oct. 16, 1936."
"That was the day," he said. "I miss her . . . mostly at night. I have nobody to think about but her. . . . It's pretty rough sometimes." He recites the other important dates: She was born July 5, 1910, and died of a heart attack Dec. 6, 1992.
Their children, two daughters and a son, "are busy with their own things," he said, but they call him, and so do their eight grandchildren. One of his daughters, who lives in Leesburg and helps with some of his chores, keeps him supplied with magazines to read--a stack of Time, Newsweek and Jet. His favorite book is still the Bible.
A close second is the 25-page family history some of his relatives put together for a family reunion in 1995. He is quick to point out that they got his middle name wrong on the second page--it's William, not Wesley. And the nickname listed beside it, Buster, well, he's not sure how he got it, he just knows his grandfather always used to call him that.
The green cover of the book is a bit faded, and a poster-size family tree, which he keeps tightly folded inside it, has begun to wrinkle at the edges. He keeps the package within eyesight, near his TV and police scanner, which sit a few feet from his recliner.
He hasn't made any particular plans for a birthday celebration. He tells a visitor seven decades his junior about his great-grandmother, who lived to be 111 and "could run faster than you do."
"It might be in my genes," he said, smiling. "I would like to live as long as I can and die when I can't help it."
CAPTION: John W. Tolbert Jr., a Leesburg resident since 1949, will celebrate his 94th birthday tomorrow. A familiar face around town, Tolbert served on the Town Council for 14 years before retiring a decade ago.
CAPTION: John W. Tolbert Jr. relaxes in the living room of his condominium that overlooks the West Park golf course.