Thousands gathered at the Walter E. Convention Center Saturday to mourn the death of longtime mayor of D.C. Marion Barry. (Office of Cable Television)

In life, Marion Barry Jr. was known for his entrances, his sense of when to step into a room, light up a crowd and put himself at the center of the action — often conspicuously late.

In death, Barry delivered a remarkable exit, a three-day spectacle capped Saturday with a marathon memorial service that featured dignitaries of national renown, scores of clergy, soaring music and fiery speeches.

Fittingly, his exit hewed only loosely to schedule.

Barry, the dominant figure of Washington’s modern political era, was buried Saturday evening at Congressional Cemetery in Southeast Washington after a final farewell service that concluded at 4 p.m., an hour later than planned.

Many thousands had streamed into the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, even if just for a short time, during nine hours of events in commemoration of a man who was mayor for 16 years and a D.C. Council member for nearly 16 more.

Barry died Nov. 23 at 78.

On the program were businessmen he made rich, clergy members he made prominent, aides he made powerful, and fellow officials he had delighted and maddened during his decades in power. Also gathered were Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., White House adviser Valerie Jarrett, members of Congress and nearly every one of the District’s living elected leaders.

Outside the hall, people whose lives the former mayor had touched gathered in front of large photographs of Barry. Before the service, Karen Robinson, 45, snapped shots of daughter Kaiya, 15, and son Khamal, 10, in front of a photo from Barry’s mid-1980s heyday.

“He wasn’t just a mayor who just served as a mayor,” said Robinson, a Fort Lincoln resident who had worked for the American Red Cross through Barry’s summer jobs program. “He was a die-hard D.C. resident. A worker for the people.”

‘He planted hope’

Poignant farewells came from family members who lived with Barry through thick and thin. Barry’s only child, 34-year-old Christopher, described him as a sometimes-absent father, a gifted politician and a gardener “in the theoretical sense.”

“He sees a barren strip of land, he tills the soil, he chases the snakes away,” he said. “He planted seeds in people’s lives. He planted hope in people who didn’t have hope.”

“They say D.C. will never be the same because Marion Barry’s gone,” he continued. “They’re right, because now there’s thousands of — millions of Marion Barrys out there. He’ll never die.”

District residents waited outside the Congressional Cemetery in Southeast Washington on Saturday evening, as former D.C. mayor Marion Barry's motorcade arrived for his burial. (Hamil Harris/The Washington Post)

The events began Thursday with Barry’s remains lying in repose at the John A. Wilson Building, a nearly four-hour motorcade through the city Friday and a packed community service that night. Before Saturday’s memorial service, a viewing lasting several hours was held at the convention center.

Barry began planning the extravaganza from his sickbed with help from his fourth and final wife, Cora Masters Barry, who in some of Saturday’s most succinct remarks thanked those who helped execute the send-off.

“Everything he did big, he did little,” Cora Barry said, recalling her late husband’s common touch. “He was a person who took great pride in helping people get up. . . . I stopped letting him go to the gas station because he would spend all of his money — not on gas, but the people.”

Mayor-elect Muriel E. Bowser (D) vowed to pursue one of the first enduring tributes to Barry, renaming the summer jobs program that he created to the Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program.

“Sometime after Martin [Luther King Jr.] had a dream, or President Barack Obama gave us hope, Marion Barry provided opportunity,” Bowser said, promising to “stand with that spirit” as mayor.

The service concluded with a eulogy from the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., who recounted a 50-year friendship with Barry dating to the early 1950s, their days as “blood brothers in the struggle” for civil rights.

Jackson said Barry belonged on an “honor roll of freedom fighters” alongside Ralph Abernathy, John Lewis, Dorothy Height, Roger Wilkins and others.

He told Barry to greet his fellow civil rights icons in the afterlife.

“Say hello to Medgar Evers,” he said. “Give a hug to Emmett Till, who made you cry. Tell Julius Hobson we miss him on the marquis. Tell John Wilson ‘Howdy.’ ”

Jackson’s 20-minute eulogy capped not only the memorial service but also a complicated friendship that at times became a political rivalry.

It was Barry who delivered one of the most enduring assessments of Jackson. In 1990, when Jackson was threatening to run for D.C. mayor, incumbent Barry told a Los Angeles Times reporter, “Jesse don’t wanna run nothing but his mouth.”

On Saturday, Jackson remembered Barry as a “hero” to the people of Washington. “He chose to resist and run on,” Jackson said. “He never stopped running.”

Personal weaknesses

Most of Saturday’s speakers approached Barry’s faults — including his 1990 drug arrest and trial — only obliquely. But in a fervid speech early in the service, Louis Farrakhan confronted Barry’s personal weaknesses head-on.

Barry played a key role in supporting the Nation of Islam leader’s 1995 Million Man March, which took place months after Barry had retaken the mayoralty. The march, Farrakhan said, “could never have happened in any other city at any other time but Washington, D.C., in the time of Mayor Marion Barry.”

“Nobody passes this life without committing sin, and when I say nobody, I mean nobody,” he said. “The popes, the cardinals, the bishops, the imams, the mullahs, the presidents, the potentates — nobody comes this way without committing sin.”

Farrakhan recounted a news conference around that time in which he was asked about Barry’s drug use and marital infidelities. He said he responded to the reporter: “Who are you talking about? John Fitzgerald Kennedy?”

The crowd roared at what was perhaps the service’s most energized moment.

‘A tall man’

More than 14,000 folding chairs were set out on the concrete floor of the convention hall, with jumbo screens located hundreds of yards behind the stage. The room never appeared more than half full during the service.

It unfolded at a languid pace. The memorial was set to begin at 11 a.m., but a procession involving hundreds of people — senior citizens, former aides, African diplomats and alumni of Barry’s youth leadership program — did not begin until nearly 11:30.

By the time the Rev. Willie F. Wilson, pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church and the event’s master of ceremonies, called the service to order at 11:45, only a portion of those in the procession had taken their seats.

Members of the D.C. Council, at the tail end of the march, were still entering the back of the hall as Wilson implored the speakers to keep to their time limits — saying that Jackson had a 5 p.m. plane to catch and that Barry’s casket had to be at the cemetery by dark.

“It’s difficult to do a short service for a tall man,” Wilson acknowledged. Later, he demanded that speakers keep their remarks to two minutes. Few, if any, complied.

But while the memorial unfolded on “Barry time,” as the former mayor’s lack of punctuality was known, his casket made it to the cemetery by sunset. About 50 people gathered behind a locked gate under a light rain for the private ceremony.

The burial was completed by 5:20 p.m., a family spokeswoman said.

‘We all benefited’

Most of those who had gathered over the three-day send-off to mourn Barry and reflect on his legacy were black, members of a group who saw their opportunities expand exponentially under Barry’s leadership.

There were a few notable exceptions.

Developer Herb Miller called Barry “the most misunderstood genius I’ve ever known.” D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) paid tribute to Barry’s political savvy. And former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R), with whom Barry sparred and made deals in his tumultuous fourth term, recorded a video tribute.

Hazel Allen, who is 68 and white and worked as a secretary for several District government agencies, said she attended Barry’s funeral because “he has done more for Washington than anyone” — and because she was “embarrassed” by the lack of diversity in the processional crowds the previous day.

Allen, dressed in a black suit jacket, skirt and hat, said she never voted for Barry and even “considered” voting Republican when Barry ran for office.

“I’m not saying I was a fan of his,” she said. “But we all benefited. This entire city benefited; blacks, whites, Orientals and Hispanics all benefited from Marion Barry. So his services should reflect that.”

Moriah Balingit, John Woodrow Cox, Hamil R. Harris, Arelis R. Hernández, Paul Schwartzman and Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.