Sunday, on the otherwise barren asphalt surrounding Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, a noisy welcoming party for cyclists participating in the Ride to Conquer Cancer sprung up in Lot 6, with an announcer offering enthusiastic words of support as participants took their final pedal strokes to the finish line.
If everything had gone as planned, Jacob Thomas “Jake” Brewer would have crossed the finish line with the hordes of weary athletes, who completed a grueling 160-mile out-and-back tour from the District to Mount Airy, Md. that started early Saturday.
Brewer, a 34-year-old White House staffer and father, died Saturday after losing control of his bike at a sharp curve, crossing the double yellow line and colliding with an oncoming car at around 3:40 p.m. The crash added a palpable sense of grief to Saturday night’s gathering at a campground in Mount Airy, where organizers announced that a participant had died in a crash, but said that the man’s family wanted the ride to continue.
Brewer, of Alexandria, was a senior policy adviser in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House and previously worked as the director of external affairs at Change.org.
On Sunday, President Obama offered his condolences in a statement, calling Brewer “one of the best.”
“Armed with a brilliant mind, a big heart, and an insatiable desire to give back, Jake devoted his life to empowering people and making government work better for them. He worked to give citizens a louder voice in our society. He engaged our striving immigrants. He pushed for more transparency in our democracy. And he sought to expand opportunity for all,” the statement said.
Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith called Brewer a driven polymath in addition to being “extraordinarily kind.” In a White House blog post, she attempted to capture the range of his work, describing what he was engaged in in just the last two weeks.
“A small sample of Jake’s work in just the past two weeks included: leading our participation in an event in the Bronx to help underprivileged young people learn to code; working with our colleagues to accelerate the President’s TechHire Initiative; and bringing together leaders from industry and government to use data to connect those with key skills to job opportunities,” Smith wrote.
Friends also called him a “renaissance man” who aggressively pursued a broad range of passions: cycling, photography, social technology.
In his professional life, he “thought big” about how to empower people, said longtime friend Michael Silberman, who rode with him Saturday. Silberman said Brewer seemed to see potential and beauty where others did not, which became an undercurrent for both his work — empowering people through technology as he did with Change.org — and with his burgeoning photography hobby. Even Saturday, in the midst of a difficult climb up to Mount Airy, Brewer noted “the way the sun was hitting the cornfields,” Silberman recalled.
“It’s about seeing potential in people that others might not see,” Silberman said, like “what’s possible with technology and civic participation.”
And he saw far beyond the political fault lines that frequently divide the city. As someone who skewed left politically, he married a woman on the opposite end of the political spectrum, Mary Katharine Ham, a journalist and political commentator.
Ham, editor-at-large of Hot Air and a Fox News contributor, remembered her husband as optimistic and humble, focused on making the world a better place. He was serious at work, but had no trouble being “goofy” otherwise – dancing, singing Aerosmith, and opening his arms so his daughter could give him a “big bear hug” after work.
“I always joked that he was the West Wing to my House of Cards,” Ham said. “Never cynical. And this is not relegated only to politics. He could connect with almost anyone. Because he cared about people.”
“Clearly I’m on the right and he was on the left,” said Ham. “He was such a transcendence of all these lines … that was his mission, he was dedicated to communicating across those lines with everyone.”
That was his goal with Define American, an advocacy organization centered on immigration reform that he co-founded with activist Jose Antonio Vargas, a former Washington Post reporter. The two became fast friends after meeting in the summer of 2007 despite coming from radically different backgrounds. In an essay for the Huffington Post, where he was an occasional contributor, Brewer lightheartedly reflected on their unexpected friendship, calling Vargas “the gay, Filipino brother I never had, and I was the white, American-heartland brother he never had. An awesomely-odd couple to be sure.”
“He and I come from completely different backgrounds, but this man has been like a rock to me,” Vargas said Sunday. There was an unvarnished sense of optimism that drove Brewer’s work, Vargas said, adding his friend was driven by “the sense we must do better and we can do better.”
Outside of grueling bike rides and mountaineering trips, Brewer was a gentle and doting father and a dedicated son, friends and family said. Sunday, he was scheduled to take his mother and stepfather on a tour of the West Wing. During the week, family said, he would have been found reading and singing to his daughter Georgia, 2; one of the books they enjoyed was “Rosie Revere, Engineer.”
And two months from now, he was going to welcome his second child to the world. Instead, family and friends were gathered in Arlington remembering the life of Brewer, who they said was a big thinker working to improve the technological landscape of government, and a dedicated father with a penchant for singing everything from Motown hits to Garth Brooks’ “The River.”
He left the world with a secret. During a recent ultrasound, his wife said, Brewer inadvertently learned something they’d planned to keep a surprise: the sex of their baby. Ham, seven months pregnant, still doesn’t know.
“There was a little miscommunication in the ultrasound room,” she said. “The technician wrote it on the screen, not making sure he was looking away.”
“And now I feel like there was a reason for it,” she said. “He kind of met this baby in a way that I have not yet.”
Brewer’s mother, Lori Collins, moved to Arlington late last year to be closer to Brewer and his sister Brittany. Collins said her son was grounded, never one to brag about his accomplishments. He saw technology as a means of widening civic engagement, she said.
“This week, he said to me, ‘by the way did I tell you about the retreat I just got back from at Camp David?’” Collins recalled.
Collins said he was dedicated to his work, something he loved. She remembered a conversation they’d had earlier in the week about his job at The White House.
“He said, ‘I am really joyful at work,’” Collins said, recalling the words of her son. “’I just, I find real joy at work.’”
Longtime friend Christina Bellantoni said Brewer was a persistent source of support and encouragement for her and other friends in his wide-ranging circle. His “verve for life” was infectious, she said, a sentiment echoed by others close to him.
“He always was very thoughtful and very encouraging of every endeavor,” Bellantoni said.
His sister Brittany Reynolds, 33, of Arlington, said he had a multitude of talents. In high school, he played football football and tennis and ran cross country and track. And he was always ready with a camera at big moments.
“One of his biggest loves was photography,” Reynolds said. “I know that he used technology and the computers to enhance his knowledge and he was always camera-ready,” she said.
Another love, his wife said, was hiking. When she was seven months pregnant with Georgia, they’d taken on the Grand Tetons, happily trekking “miles and miles and miles.” On Sunday, Ham posted Instagram photos of Brewer.
In a casual family portrait taken with their young daughter, she wrote an extended caption sharing her grief. “We lost our Jake yesterday, and I lost part of my heart and the father of my sweet babies. I don’t have to tell most of you how wonderful he was. It was self-evident. His life was his testimony, and it was powerful and tender and fierce, with an ever-present twinkle in the eye.”