He’s been gone now for more than three years, without telling his wife what he’s doing, or when he’ll return. But everywhere Dorothy Fauntroy looks in the couple’s Northwest Washington home, there are images of her husband, civil rights legend Walter E. Fauntroy.
A gold framed portrait of Walter dressed in a dark suit and blue tie hangs by the front door of the Crestwood house they’ve owned for more than 50 years. Downstairs in the basement sits a photo of Walter, arm in arm with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy, during a District march for home rule.
Walter, who helped King plan the 1963 March on Washington and served as the District’s congressional delegate for two decades, left the country in 2012 amid mounting legal and financial problems. The 82-year-old retired pastor is believed by friends to be somewhere in Dubai.
In her first interview since a campaign began to raise money on her behalf, Dorothy, 80, said she last spoke to Walter by phone in March — the same month the couple filed for bankruptcy protection, claiming debts between $500,000 and $1 million, in an effort to stave off foreclosure. She said she has been praying for him to come home.
“I believe he’s going to come back. I really believe he wants to come back to see his grandson,” Dorothy said as she sat underneath a framed newspaper photo from 199o showing the couple embracing their daughter Melissa Alice, whose son was born 10 months ago. “I really believe Walter was tickled when he found out he was born. He wanted to know what the name was. I told him it was Jason.”
Dorothy said that when she speaks to him, she doesn’t press him on his whereabouts, how she can reach him or how much longer he’ll be gone. But his return could be complicated by a criminal charge he’s facing for writing a bad check — a $55,000 payment to an event-planning company that helped him organize an ill-fated ball for President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
Despite their financial and legal struggles, Dorothy said she’s never felt betrayed by Walter’s absence.
“I’ve gone through a lot of hard times in the past and lots of things have happened to me,” said Dorothy, who fended off a Stage 1 colon cancer diagnosis 10 years ago. Now she keeps a collection of porcelain angel figurines and music boxes around their home. “I just pray. I give it to the Lord and let him work it out. There’s no point in me getting upset and worrying. That’s what he’s done.”
Dorothy and Walter Fauntroy have been married for nearly 58 years and, in addition to their daughter, have a son, Marvin. They attended Virginia Union University in Richmond in the 1950s, and one day, while they were both walking to the same church, he introduced himself. She remembers laughing at his fraternity-ordered buzz cut. A couple of years later, they got married in her home town of Petersburg, Va., at the Zion Baptist Church.
A graduate of the Yale University Divinity School, Walter became a renowned pastor, a close friend to King, and Washington’s first nonvoting delegate to the House of Representatives in almost 100 years.
His wife has watched him set off for exotic locales before. As a congressman, he went to South Africa to protest apartheid. And as recently as 2011, two years after retiring from New Bethel Baptist Church, Walter traveled to Libya on a peace mission, as Moammar Gaddafi’s regime was on the verge of collapsing. He was briefly arrested and feared dead.
“He’d go on these peace things,” Dorothy said. “I said, ‘I’ll pray for you.’ ”
In January 2012, Dorothy said Walter left again. All he told her was that he was going to Africa to set up a school. She didn’t know the specifics.
“I don’t know if that school in Africa ever materialized,” Dorothy said. “I think he was doing it with a group of people. That’s his business. It didn’t bother me. He’s done that from Day One. He’d say, ‘I got to go here and speak there.’ ” She stayed home and ran their household, she said.
Walter’s close friends, including his attorney Johnny Barnes, think Walter is in Dubai, based on what he’s told them and the phone numbers he’s calling from.
Maryland State Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince George’s), who considers Walter a close friend and mentor, said Friday that he spoke with Fauntroy about a month ago. “He called from a Dubai number and said that he was fine, and that he wanted to come home in April. He sounded like Walter.”
Barnes said he and others are trying to persuade Fauntroy to let them visit him in Dubai. They’d like to check on his health and talk him into coming home. Barnes declined to specify what Walter’s doing abroad, only that he wants to “eliminate world hunger, promote a green economy, and world peace.”
“He’s got a group of people who’ve been helping him to refine these proposals, and he’s hoping to get funding,” Barnes said.
Meanwhile, a group of friends has rallied around Dorothy to try to win bankruptcy protection and stave off foreclosure of the Fauntroys’ home. Barnes said a group has begun paying more than $2,000 a month in mortgage payments and that more money is being paid to the couple’s other creditors. Barnes said once the Fauntroys get bankruptcy protection, they would have to pay only for future mortgage payments, not any previous home debt.
Dorothy is living off Social Security checks and payments from the New Bethel Baptist Church in Shaw, where Walter served as pastor for decades until his retirement in 2009, Barnes said. Walter appears to be financing his travels with his congressional pension, the attorney added.
The last time Dorothy talked to him, she said, she updated him on news at New Bethel Baptist. “It was the usual conversation,” she said. “He would not stay on the phone for very long because he said it was expensive. He was just calling me to see how I was doing.”
She misses him, she said. But what does she miss exactly?
She laughed hard. “He snores at night. It’s not a real loud,” Dorothy said, grinning. “It’s sort of like ‘mmmm.’ ” Then she got serious. “Sometimes I’d go to sleep before he got home from work. I’d hear the garage going up,” she said. “I miss hearing that noise.”
Mary Pat Flaherty contributed to this report.