John W. Tolbert Jr., Leesburg's first black Town Council member and a chef for 65 years, died Friday at Loudoun Hospital Center. He was 94.
St. James Episcopal Church, where Tolbert was a member for 50 years, is expecting hundreds of mourners--including town residents past and present--to attend his funeral at 11 a.m. today. A viewing was held at the church yesterday, and an all-night prayer vigil was held afterward for anyone who wanted to attend. Flags are flying at half-staff this week at the town's offices in Tolbert's honor.
Relatives said that Tolbert had "gone downhill" after he lost his appetite and that he went into the hospital the day before Thanksgiving. "He kept telling us, 'Why don't folks just leave me alone?' " said his son, John W. Tolbert III, who goes by the name "Johnny."
Daughter Carolyn Ashton said, "I think his mind wasn't ready, but his body was saying, 'Let's go.' "
Tolbert, a native of Charles Town, W.Va, ran a cafe there and came to Leesburg in 1949 to preside in the kitchen of the Laurel Brigade Inn. Over the next decade, he helped the restaurant earn a loyal following. He worked for 12 years at the Madeira School, where he retired in 1973 as head chef. He gained a reputation there as a counselor and father figure, dispensing advice to the students as well as meals.
He was appointed to the Town Council in 1976 and elected in 1978. He served on the council until 1990, including a two-year stint as vice mayor, and he was proud of rarely missing a meeting. A soft-spoken man, Tolbert often sat silent at council meetings and dozens of other civic groups that he served on, his former colleagues recalled. He would take meticulous notes at meetings before interjecting his opinion.
"He usually threw in some words that would be common sense but would make you think," Ashton said.
Ashton and her brother sorted through boxes and family photographs earlier this week at Tolbert's first-floor condominium along the West Park golf course, where he moved after selling the South King Street house he shared with his wife. Virginia Gaskins Tolbert died in 1992.
As their son went about the task of packing, he pulled out a folded sheet of paper from a pink, plastic envelope. It was "Tolbert's Recipe for Life." No one is sure who wrote it or where it came from, but Tolbert often gave copies to his children and colleagues.
One line reads, Resolve to listen more and to talk less. No one ever learns anything by talking.
Even a few months before his 94th birthday in July, Tolbert had said he wanted to "stir things up in town" by filling a council vacancy. "I know this town well," he said at the time, "and I know more about what's going on than [some council members] do." He still drove himself--except at night--in his brown 1977 Plymouth station wagon to most of the monthly meetings of the Town Council's Environmental Advisory Commission, of which he was a member.
His son laughed as he recalled his father's driving skills, including his habit of driving well under the speed limit. "I remember I could catch a nap between here and the Post Office," he said--a distance of hardly more than a mile.
Tolbert was the youngest child of a railroad engineer and a homemaker. Despite his father's urgings, he refused to go to college after graduating from Dunbar High School in Washington in 1924 and opened Tolbert's Cafe instead.
He closed it during the Depression and took a job cooking for D.C. Sands on Benton Farm near Middleburg. While on a trip to Willisville, he meet the woman to whom he would be married for 56 years.
To fill his later days, he cooked elaborate meals of baked chicken, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and homemade biscuits for visitors. The crackle of a police scanner became his companion.
Besides Ashton, who lives in Newport News, Va., and his son, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, he is survived by another daughter, Carol Smith, of Leesburg; nine grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Thelma Roberts, and an infant son, James Maurice.
Instead of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the following organizations: St. James Episcopal Church, 14 Cornwall St. NW, Leesburg, Va. 20176; the Loudoun Douglass Alumni Association, P.O. Box 1638, Leesburg, Va. 20175; and the George C. Marshall International Center at Dodona Manor, 212 E. Market St., Leesburg, Va. 20176.
CAPTION: Former chef and Town Council member John W. Tolbert Jr. lived in Leesburg for 50 years.