James E. Cheek lived like a king. Bargain-hunters will see that today, when they step into his palatial mansion on the District's platinum coast and rummage in rooms adorned with carved elephant tusks from Africa, lead crystal goblets, ceremonial swords and hundreds of other precious belongings laid out for auction.
But perhaps few of the bidders for Cheek's possessions will know about the man himself, his triumphs or his troubles. Cheek once stood shoulder to shoulder with Washington's most prominent black citizens as Howard University's longest-serving president, winner of the nation's highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom, and a mover known for his fabulous parties on 16th Street NW.
During his first decade at Howard, he transformed himself and the university. Strong at the onset, he envisioned a bigger and more influential university, with a modern hospital and a broader academic program. He achieved many of his goals, but at a price. In his second decade, students called him the invisible president. The university lacked the funds to support his achievements because its economic base was fragile. The place was poorly run. Cheek left in 1989, his reputation slightly tarnished.
And then he really fell. In 1997, Cheek was forced to take shelter in U.S. Bankruptcy Court when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and other creditors went after him for his role in a banking fiasco. While still at Howard, Cheek had joined the board of United National Bank. After UNB collapsed in 1991, investigators discovered that Cheek attended just one meeting in a year in which the bank made millions of dollars in risky loans to recipients with no collateral. The FDIC charged Cheek with gross negligence, among other things, and earlier this year won a $1.8 million judgment against him and his estate.
The ruling, in effect, sent him packing from the city, to Greensboro, N.C., where he owns another home. Last month, Cheek and his wife, Celestine, left the 16th Street house in a 1994 BMW sedan he repurchased from the trustee of his estate, said Ronald Evans, an auctioneer hired by the estate.
In their rush, the couple left Christmas candy in jars near the front door of their house, located at 8035 16th Street NW, the northernmost tip of the city. Efforts to reach Cheek and his attorney were not successful.
During a two-decade reign at Howard beginning in 1969, Cheek amassed a tremendous number of possessions, all now in the hands of his estate's trustee. They include a Miami Beach condominium, three yachts and three cars. These large holdings are among the few that aren't up for sale, Evans said.
The six-bedroom, four-bathroom house on 16th Street is assessed at nearly $800,000. It and everything else goes, starting with his model train set valued at $10,000 and now parked in the garage. "If I can get three to four thousand dollars for it, I'll be happy," said Evans, who expects to sell more than 800 items in two hours.
Other items up for sale include a 250-gallon aquarium and the two Japanese Koi fish swimming inside it.
Next to the aquarium is a Brunswick pool table. Twenty-four cue sticks and two sets of balls sit beside it. In the living room are collectibles worth $150,000 and jewelry valued at $30,000, according to bankruptcy court documents.
Many of those items were on display when Cheek entertained faculty members and political dignitaries.
His parties were renowned and on occasion boozy. His guests would walk into a living room adorned with Egyptian paintings and climb down a winding staircase into Cheek's pride and joy--an enormous entertainment room with a bar supplied with 124 frosted champagne flutes and stocked with every alcoholic beverage imaginable.
"He was a marvelous host," said Lorenzo Morris, a professor in Howard's political science department. "He was affable and much more open than most school presidents. When you were in his house, he would hold you for hours. Sometimes you would have to fight to get out of a long conversation and out the door."
The thought of strangers walking among Cheek's possessions, buying everything in sight, possibly for below-bargain prices, saddened Morris and others who were invited there during Cheek's heyday.
"It was a well-appointed home," said Ron Walters, a former Howard political science professor who now teaches at the University of Maryland. "The living room had very nice furniture. His bar was his pride and joy. He liked to stand in the center of the bar, holding his favorite drink, Jack Daniels, or so I heard."
Walters described Cheek as a very serious man who, after his retirement, sought to start a civil rights organization called One-Third of a Nation.
"It's sad because James Cheek was president at Howard for 20 years and, in that time, set out a very respectful legacy of transition and growth," Walters said. "To see this happen to him, regardless of how you felt about him, is just tragic."
While true that Cheek was admired for his triumphs, other actions by the Republican sent chills down the backs of liberal black intellectuals on and off campus. In 1981, he invited Vice President George Bush to speak at a commencement address, sparking protests. Bush did speak, but 20 graduates in the front row stood and turned their backs.
Two years later, Cheek invited President Ronald Reagan to campus, which led to another protest. "I put 500 to 600 people on the streets," said Walters, who said he is neither a Democrat or Republican. Protesters lined Reagan's motorcade route to the school along Georgia Avenue, Walters said. "They finally came up the back way. Reagan had to pass all these demonstrators."
As he neared retirement, Cheek invited Lee Atwater, a Republican political operative with a checkered record on race relations, to sit on Howard's board.
A fury of protests on and off campus prompted Atwater and Cheek to back away from the proposal.
"We had our disagreements," Walters said, "but I respected him. I thought he was a good president, a worthy symbol of the university."
CAPTION: Auctioneer W. Ron Evans looks over Lladro porcelain owned by James E. and Celestine Cheek to be sold today at their D.C. house.