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A Eulogy for the "Mayor of Penn Quarter"

When I moved to Washington, D.C., the first thing I noticed was that the concept of being “neighborly” was foreign to most city dwellers.  I once knocked on a neighbor’s door to ask if she could take in my Sunday paper for me while I was away, and was treated as if I’d asked her to transport a car bomb.

This chilly behavior was foreign to me. Growing up out West, strangers waved at you when you drove by and said hello when they passed you on the sidewalk.  The idea that someone could live four feet from your front door and treat you like a leper did not make sense to me.

Over time, I adjusted to Washington’s aloof and dismissive culture.  I stopped exchanging pleasantries or trying to start conversations in the elevator.  You can only be rebuffed so many times before you just give up. 

Then, in 2006, I moved into a new building and was taken aback when one of my neighbors, a grey-haired Southern gentleman with a jolly sense of humor and a little white dog named Beth, stopped to say hello every time he saw me. We would chat about the weather, about the neighborhood and about Beth, who was basically community property–loved and adored by everyone in the building. The man, Rhett Leverett, was casually referred to as the Mayor of Penn Quarter, a welcoming committee of one.

This morning, Rhett, whose daily chats were often the only friendly, pleasant conversation I had all day, died after being hit by a car.  His beloved Beth wasn’t harmed.

I can’t even fathom that I will never again see him walking Beth on the sidewalk or chatting with another neighbor about the building’s endless plumbing problems.  He genuinely cared about all of his neighbors, and was the nicest person I have ever met.  Seeing him in the lobby was one of the ways I knew I was home.  The building, the neighborhood and the daily commutes of dozens of PQ residents will not be the same without him.

P.S. Just to illustrate how many lives this man touched, my assistant was one of his students at Marymount and says that non-history majors used to sign up for Leverett’s classes just because he was such a great teacher.  I don’t think there was anyone who knew him who didn’t think he was one of the nicest people they ever knew.

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    25 comments

  1. Mary says:

    I'm so sorry to hear about the loss of your neighbor. He sounds like a wonderful person. Sending thoughts and prayers your way.

    November 30, -0001/Reply
  2. Beth says:

    I am so sorry to read this. He sounded like such a great person.

    November 30, -0001/Reply
  3. CynthiaW says:

    What a lovely tribute to someone who sounds like a remarkable person – we all can only hope that we touch other people in the way that he did.

    And I can't even imagine living somewhere where people look at you oddly for greeting them – how bizarre.

    November 30, -0001/Reply
  4. rebecca says:

    ,,,i heard on the news this evening the fate of professor leverett. i'm so sorry for all of you who knew the professor, a kind and gentle man. i moved to DC 3 years ago from AZ and every day i'm amazed at how cold and calloused people are in these tri-states. i say “hello” to perfect strangers i walk by, in my neighborhood, and most look at me like i have a third eye. upon my return home i find myself peeking in the mirror just to make certain there's nothing there,,,

    October 1, 2012/Reply
  5. DC Mom says:

    So, so sorry to hear this. My condolences for your–and everyone's loss. Does Beth have a place to go?

    October 1, 2012/Reply
  6. Belle says:

    Beth is with a neighbor.

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  7. Fellow DC Residenth says:

    Thank you for posting this.

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  8. Melissa says:

    this breaks my heart. hopefully his example of kind neighborliness will have been passed on to those he knew.

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  9. Smiles says:

    Sorry to hear this, but I'm so tired of people complaining about the lack of friendliness in DC. I think we live in a very friendly city! Lots of strangers say hi to me on the street, or find a reason to start a conservation, or at least make eye contact and smile. My neighbors and I let each other know when we'll be out of town so we can watch each other's houses.

    I will concede that the DC suburbs can be cold, unwelcoming places, but that's because the people there are grouchy after spending three hours of their day stuck in traffic. Midwesterners don't exactly have that problem.

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  10. Smiles says:

    @CynthiaW, me either! That would make me not want to live there.

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  11. Danae says:

    I can only hope we all learn to be a bit more like Rhett.

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  12. Laura F. says:

    That was a lovely tribute. I agree that his legacy may be that we might take the time to be nice to a stranger. Rest in peace, Professor Leverett.

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  13. mkat says:

    What a lovely legacy to leave. Thank you for sharing that, Belle. A true embodiment of a timeless saying that “There are no strangers, only friends we have not yet met.”

    @Smiles, it's funny you single out D.C. suburbanites as being the unfriendly ones; my husband and I have been living in city and/or immediate suburbs for 15 years, and have had the opposite experience. Recently we bought a home in the suburbs, and we find it to be a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively! However, I presume our current neighbors have more of an investment in being neighborly because buying a home and raising a family, for those who choose to, adds a sense of permanence and concern for what is going on in your surroundings. I think that would be true in residential neighborhoods in D.C. as well. Maybe in some of the more “exclusive” suburban (and D.C.) neighborhoods, people are less friendly to strangers? But then again, I wouldn't expect open arms in neighborhoods that are known as “exclusive” — the name pretty much says it all. I think it's sometimes the luck of the draw, too.

    But, I also think this is common in modern urban America, where many people think it's not worth their time to be neighborly because they don't understand what they would get in return; and especially when it's not clear whether we have anything immediately in common with these neighbors. Yet, as Prof. Leverett proved, being neighborly remains a much appreciated virtue unto itself.

    Finally, I dd have a small chuckle on the no traffic in the Midwest comment…I guess if you forget about Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit, Cleveland, etc….

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  14. Anonymous says:

    Will Beth have a permanent home with the neighbor? Can't bear the thought of Beth grieving for her owner and not having a nice and safe home.

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  15. Sara says:

    Smiles, what a shallow, insensitive comment to leave on such a lovely post. How dare Belle “complain” that her neighbors aren't very neighborly when your experience is different? How awful of her.

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  16. Anna says:

    How sad! It reminds me of the recent death of Peter Bis, a homeless man who would sit on the corner of 2nd and Mass NE and offer friendly greetings to all the passersby. His death really touched me and emphasized the impact that a person can have by doing seemingly so little.

    I think DC's friendliness varies from neighborhood to neighborhood. I've found that in Capitol Hill, where I live, people are surprisingly unfriendly, especially given how “neighborhoody” the area is. Unless there's already an established relationship or you're a part of the mommy or school or church groups, there really isn't much interaction. Few people smile or say hi on the streets or start up random conversations. Yet, I have friends who just moved to Petworth who were astounded by the politeness and random hellos they receive when walking around. Similarly, when I've walked around SW where my cousin lives, everyone smiled and said hello or stopped to chat about a new building or inquired where we from and how we liked the neighborhood when they heard us speaking in Spanish.

    I think because of DC's transient nature, a lot of its residents tend to walk around with their guards up. Maybe neighbors who know each other are perfectly nice and friendly, but largely, there isn't the same type of kindness toward strangers that you find in other places.

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  17. Jamie says:

    https://www.arlnow.com/2012/10/01/marymount-professor-dies-after-being-struck-by-car-in-d-c/#more-41649

    Article in Arlington Now about him.

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  18. Hae says:

    what a beautiful tribute to the professor and his dear companion beth. belle–if you hear that beth suddenly is without a home, please let us know.

    i have had a variety of experiences while living in dc… generally, it is definitely less friendly than atlanta (where i lived for a few years)… but i grew up in the chicago area… and i found that the midwest was not as friendly as dc. granted, i will admit, i do walk around with my guard up and don't openly say much else other than “good morning” or “hello” to folks in the elevator or commuting in public spaces. my other half recently suggested that i be more open, especially since i've moved to his townhouse in the suburbs… and it definitely is nice to open and up and chat with our neighbors.

    one thing is for sure… the neighbor who treated you in such a poor manner is a huge JERK!!

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  19. Theresa says:

    Oh my gosh, I saw this on the news! I'm so sorry, what a terrible tragedy.

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  20. Smiles says:

    @mkat, my bad experiences have been in Alexandria, Fairfax, and especially Annandale. Not what I would call “exclusive” neighborhoods.

    @Anna, I live in Capitol Hill and my experience could not be any different than yours. I don't know what to say except maybe you're not presenting yourself in a manner that makes people want to open up to you. It might not be obvious to you but there must be a vibe others are picking up on, so be sure to smile and make eye contact with people! I've also lived in SW and think the level of friendliness is about the same, though there were a few exceptions.

    I think a lot of this depends on how you interact with strangers. If you get worked up about someone not saying hi to you (or, like Sara, leave nasty comments on blogs) you probably have a pissed-off look on your face that scares away otherwise friendly people. I feel sorry for anyone that honestly believes that DC is an unfriendly place and there's nothing they can do about it. It must make it dreadful to live here.

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  21. Joanna says:

    I am sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this story, for taking the time to appreciate the people around you. I have in my life like this, people that I see on the bus, at the gym, or at the post office that I don't have a deep relationship with but that are a comfort to me. My bus driver is one of those people. When I see him and the others, it's like everything is right in the world, that the trains are running on time. It's nice to know that other people feel the same. I'll keep you in my thoughts and prayers.

    October 2, 2012/Reply
  22. Caroline says:

    Anna, I guess you missed the news about the Maslin family and how the community came together to support them after the husband/father was brutally attacked. Most of us didn't even know the family but nonetheless donated time, and money, and meals, and words of encouragement. There really is a spirit of kindness and looking out for each other in Capitol Hill that you don't see often. I have more casual interactions with strangers on the street here than I have anywhere else, including the small town I grew up in.

    I think a lot of people confuse outgoingness with friendliness. DC is full of introverted intellectuals who may not be waving and shouting to every person on the street, but nonetheless have warmth in the eyes and a ready smile. So it may not be glaringly obvious, but it doesn't take a whole lot of effort to recognize either.

    I never met Rhett Leverett, but I'm sure he was of the opinion that people in DC are friendly. Unfriendliness is an easy thing for city-dwellers to mindlessly complain about, but much like crime and griminess it's really a lot of hyperbole.

    October 3, 2012/Reply
  23. Connected through a past student/mentee says:

    I am a friend and co-worker of one of Professor Leverett's past students.

    Over the past few days I have heard about the endless students whose lives he touched and the various people in the Marymout community whose lives he changed. I wish I could have known Professor Leverett but regardless, I mourn his death.

    I cannot believe that this post has become a place for conversation about the friendliness or lack thereof in the DC/VA area. I am asking you as a fellow resident to NOT RESPOND ANY MORE to any posts about the friendliness of the area. That is not what this post is about. It's meant for people who loved/knew this man to share their feelings and memories. Thank you for listening, I hope you will respect his memory and not bring the topic up again.

    This man was an institution not only in his neighborhood but also at the school. He made everyone around him smile and feel welcome. The world seriously lacks people like Professor Leverett and now we have lost another.

    I am sending love and hope to everyone touched by Professor Leverett's life and loss.

    Sincerely,

    Astonished

    October 4, 2012/Reply
  24. Astonished, really? says:

    Most of us who read this blog were not as fortunate as you are and did not know Professor Leverett. So we responded in the only ways we could. I don't think the discussion is out of place or disrespectful to the deceased.

    October 4, 2012/Reply
  25. upset student says:

    As a student of Professor Leverett for eight classes. I am happy to see this. He was the reason that I minored in History. He had a way of conveying a time period and making your mind feel like you were there. He could show you the juicy gossip stories and make you feel passionate. Most classes i had with him were 3 hours and I never wanted them to end, but most of my hour and fifteen minute classes I would look at the clock. He was a wonderful man outside the classroom as well . I spent time in his office talking about other classes and about my future after Marymount. He cared if I attended class or not. he was fair and understanding. I have never met anyone that could make me laugh so hard and turn around a bad day like he could. I am blessed to have had in my life. I am upset that there can only be one in the world. I am prussuing history education, and hope i can be half the man he was. I can see him being the mayor of Penn Quater too. Such an amazing person

    October 16, 2012/Reply