Harry Roesch could fix anything, and when neighbors learned he had cancer, there were probably plenty who thought he could fix that, too.
After receiving a diagnosis two years ago, Harry didn’t let the cancer slow him down. Throughout his chemotherapy he was still “Harry the Hammer.” If you lived in his Friendship Heights neighborhood and had a problem with your house — a leaky faucet, a loose banister or some crumbling brickwork — Harry would be there, tool belt at his waist.
He specialized in helping widows stay in their houses — installing railings and doing other things to help stave off the move to a nursing home.
“He’s always been the neighborhood handyman,” said Harry’s wife, Nancy Riker.
Harry was many other things as well. His degree was in geography, and before his retirement in 2009, he worked for the Appalachian Regional Commission, dedicated to improving the lives of people in Appalachia. When he and Nancy met, he was living in a house on Corcoran Street NW, near Dupont Circle. Back then, that wasn’t the best neighborhood. Harry rehabbed his house. He installed flower boxes on the sidewalk. He planted trees.
“He tended to every forgotten space in his part of the city,” Nancy said. “He made it beautiful.”
Harry and Nancy lived for 25 years at the tip of the Triangle, the name locals give to the
houses on 45th Street, River Road and Garrison Street NW. It’s a tightknit community between Friendship Heights and AU Park, and Harry was the glue that held everything together. Each morning he put out a water-filled dish to slake the thirst of passing dogs. He had a basement full of tools that he shared. He saved bits of wood, since he never knew when a piece might come in handy. He saved screws, too.
“He wasn’t of the disposable generation,” Nancy said. “Nowadays, people buy new. Harry never did that.” For years, he sent his electric shaver off for regular service, buying a new one only after his beloved Norelco finally gave up the ghost.
Harry worked on dozens of houses in the neighborhood. If you were game, he’d encourage you to lend a hand and you’d tackle the job together. He didn’t do it for money. Often he wouldn’t take any, charging just for supplies. A connoisseur of fine spirits, nothing made Harry happier than a bottle of good bourbon from a grateful neighbor.
“He knew how to do it right,” Nancy said. “He was distressed when contractors did it wrong. . . . He wanted it fair. That was his contribution to humanity.”
The Triangle had its annual Valentine’s Day party in February. Harry was there, but he wasn’t looking well. The doctors had told him that there was nothing more they could do. Bart Stichman, who lives on Garrison Street — and for whom Harry had fixed a mysterious ceiling leak — thought Harry should be honored somehow. He sketched a design for a yard sign on a napkin: a hammer and the legend “Harry was here.”
Bart ordered 10. When those were snapped up by neighbors, he ordered 14 more. They bloomed in front yards like spring daffodils.
“They felt connected to him having a sign in their front yard,” Nancy said. “It was for Harry, too, like it was for them.”
Some passersby would ask if this Harry fellow was running for political office. Others asked if they could hire Harry. No, the Triangle residents explained. Harry was dying, and each sign marked a house that he had touched with his well-practiced hands and with his generous heart.
One day, not long before the end, a friend pushed Harry through the neighborhood in a wheelchair. They saw signs on 45th Street and Garrison. There were signs on River Road, too, and Fessenden and Faraday Place.
They came to one sign that was slightly crooked in the ground. Harry got up from the wheelchair, walked over and straightened it.
“He just liked things to be right,” Nancy said.
When Harry Roesch died March 16 at age 67, Ken and Sharon Hurley from 45th Street went through the neighborhood adding a small swatch of black ribbon to each sign. “Harry was here,” the signs read. Now Harry was gone.
But he wasn’t really. Wherever someone realizes that it isn’t good fences that make good neighbors, it’s good people, Harry is there. And he always will be.
To read previous columns by John Kelly, go to washingtonpost.com/ johnkelly.