No one is quite sure when Honeyboy Williams started roller-skating.
His children think it was about the time he stopped boxing in the welterweight and lightweight class at the Metropolitan Boys Club of Washington. An old family photo shows him as a youngster with wheels on his feet. When asked his age, he would make a joke of the inquiry, offering to start a raffle for the best guessers and teasing that he had 19 great-grandchildren and a 25-year-old girlfriend.
No one disputes that Williams, nicknamed "the mayor" of D.C.'s roller-skaters, skated for decades around his home town of Washington, at 16th Street and Kalorama Road NW, in a wide variety of parades and at the outdoor Anacostia roller rink. Many people in the area's roller-skating community recognized his flashing smile, his impeccable dress and his long-legged dancing energy, swinging from his waist a heavy silver chain that was his signature.
"Smooth on the wheels and sweet with the ladies," a fellow skater wrote in a tribute to him.
Howard Cordell "Honeyboy" Williams, 77, died of heart disease Nov. 29 at his daughter's home in Washington.
He skated nearly to the time of his death; he fell ill in October, but two days before he died, friends pushed his wheelchair onto a Baltimore rink to circle the boards. It was a nice turnabout, because Williams was well known for offering beginners a helping hand.
"Everything in his life was roller-skating. He loved teaching roller-skating and never took a dime for it," said a grandson, Edward Smith.
"He did not let problems get him down," added a daughter, Verdina Smith. "He was always full of smiles and charm, and was never too busy for family and friends."
He would offer counsel to anyone who needed advice and sometimes would seek to set relatives on the right path before they even knew they needed a hand. Williams spotted a nice young man at a rink one day. He got off the rink, went home and dragged his then-16-year-old daughter Verdina back with him. She ended up marrying the man.
Williams also took care of a 90-year-old aunt, bringing her the Sunday newspaper, taking her where she needed to go.
He had held a variety of jobs, for a while working in a florist shop and for another period using those strong skating legs as a bicycle courier, standing out as the 60-year-old messenger in the twenty-something biking corps. For the past 15 years, he worked as a home health aide to a mentally challenged man, and the man's mother can't say enough about him.
"He was the most reliable, responsible, caring, loving man," said Diane Lowe. "He never uttered a bad word about anybody. He could talk nonstop, but you had to love him. He would go anywhere. He was on a bus all over the city with my son."
Williams, who didn't drive, caught rides to skating competitions all over the Eastern Seaboard and down to New Orleans. In addition to those travels, he somehow managed to work full time and squeeze in several skates at area rinks each week. Many mornings he could be found having coffee with other seniors at the McDonald's on Georgia Avenue NW near Howard University. He also was an honorary father to his daughter Lisle Turner's young adult club at St. Augustine's Catholic Church at 15th and V streets NW.
"He was full of energy, and he loved people," said Sam Gilyard, former manager of the Alexandria skating rink, who knew Williams for years. "He was a figure skater, a disco skater."
Williams won a number of awards, including Skategroove.com's Adrenaline Award in 2004 and the DC/Maryland Skaters Legends Award this year.
He also was a star for 21 years in the Show on Skates at Anacostia Park. Betty Dodds, chief executive and president of Anacostia Rollers and Friends Inc., which produces the shows, said he was a favorite of children because of his age, energy and that swinging chain.