A photo of James Forward is displayed at his memorial service Saturday at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Columnist

As far as bar-stool curmudgeons go, Captain James was damn near perfect.

He had a push-broom mustache that canopied snarks, filthy jokes, wit, cigarettes and bottomless shots of Jameson.

He was a dyslexic Marine with a sixth-grade education who became a voracious reader and delivered Ivy League-caliber symposiums on history from that Capitol Hill bar stool.

And he muttered, after plenty of Jamesons at the Tune Inn, about a horrible incident in Morocco that left one of his Marine buddies dead. And about his two failed marriages. And about the son he’d abandoned.

But that’s not why we’re writing this story. Because Washington is full of these characters: people who regret, sin, drink too much, read voraciously and tell the same stories over and over.

Captain James’s seat at the Tune Inn on Capitol Hill has been transformed into a shrine, of sorts, with flowers, notes and a lot of glasses of Jameson Irish whiskey. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

No, we’re writing about James Forward, who died at 73 after decades of smoking and drinking, because he also personified redemption, forgiveness, humility and caring.

“He wasn’t a good dad,” his once-abandoned son, Colin Archer Forward, told mourners Saturday at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church. “But he was a damn fine person.”

That realization — and the astonishing grace and forgiveness that came with it — took years for Colin to achieve. A bunch of Tune Inn regulars, men and women known as the Rogue Saints, helped father and son reconcile.

The service for Captain James wasn’t held in the church sanctuary, as most funerals are. No, it was in the basement, because that’s where he was more comfortable.

Actually, he was most comfortable at the bar. Primarily the first corner stool on the left when you walk into the Tune Inn, that renowned dive bar on Pennsylvania Avenue in Southeast Washington.

When he wasn’t working as a carpenter, set designer or TV cameraman, he held court there. He read there. He even got the VA to deliver his meds there.

At the bar, Captain James greeted newcomers — “Welcome Aboard!” — before he’d decide whether they were worthy of repartee.

Items left at the spot at the bar where Captain James always sat. (Petula Dvorak/The Washington Post)

And if they were, and he got to know them, he’d eventually get them to come to the church basement.

“James dragged you here,” the Rev. Dottie Yunger remembered Saturday, and the crowd of 200 laughed and nodded. As far as she knew, Captain James made it into the sanctuary only twice.

But he found redemption in the basement, cooking and serving food to about 12,000 homeless and hungry people over 16 years. He offered them his meatloaf, potatoes, encouragement and the occasional cigarette.

“He always had a kind word, never treated me like I was less than him,” said Arlene Mercer, 58, who was one of the captain’s soup-kitchen regulars when she had no place to live.

He and another Tune Inn regular, Phil Yunger, recruited an army of volunteers from the bar. He hated titles, but he served as the soup kitchen’s “chef, volunteer coordinator and fundraiser,” said church pastor Alisa Wailoo. And the work there helped Captain James live out his one life commandment: “Do the right thing and take care of each other.”

The Rogue Saints — lawyers, lobbyists, librarians, accountants, cooks, historians, lots of veterans and folks who once lived on the streets — made T-shirts with that commandment written across the back.

And it was the Rogue Saints who helped reunite Captain James with his son.

Colin Forward, 28, was born in Bethesda but grew up in Orlando. He asked about his dad a lot when he was young but eventually gave up.

He met him for the first time when he was 15, after a big family celebration for his grandparents’ anniversary. His mom made sure that someone found Captain James on whatever street he was living at the time, cleaned him up and got him ready to meet his child.

They had a wary encounter. “I was skeptical. He seemed nervous, and humble, and promised me he would never, ever judge me. It was a good start,” he said.

No one but his father called him Colin Archer.

Over the years, the son got calls from folks at the Tune.

“I really got to know my dad through a series of trips that were initiated in a pretty mysterious fashion,” he said.

“They would usually start a call with ‘Colin Archer? You don’t know me, but I’m a friend of your dad’s. I need to know when you can come to D.C. We’re buying you a ticket.’ ”

And when he showed up in the District, courtesy of a mystery ticket, there would be mystery gifts. Soccer jerseys, tickets to Wizards games, a gold ring.

“Hey, I got you one of those — a jersey from Brazil,” a lobbyist in the basement interjected.

For 12 years, the Rogue Saints at the bar worked toward reconciling father and son.

“He never forgave himself for leaving me, or for his failed marriages, or what happened 50 years ago at war,” Colin Forward said.

“I think despite it all, he managed to inspire a lot of people. I’ve had accountants, lawyers, barbacks and servers, scientists, engineers, police and firemen, politicians and lobbyists all tell me stories about how my father touched their lives. It seems that the depth of his character taught a whole lot of people how to be a little more compassionate,” his son said in his eulogy.

“I think normally, when people are bad at taking care of themselves, we tend to write them off. We make a subconscious assumption that they aren’t valuable.”

No, Captain James was more than that guy at the bar. He was valuable. He was a Rogue Saint.

Twitter: @petulad