Donald Brooks In Memoriam
The passing of Donald Brooks represents the loss of a long-time supporter, advocate, and friend to both Street Sense Media and to me. It is with a heavy heart that I write this In Memoriam.
Brooks, as I called him, had a huge personality.
By his own admission, he was loud, political, and quick to make a joke. He was proud and loyal. He supported his friends and built up those around him with incredible sincerity and fortitude. In some ways, he had lived several lifetimes – as a D.C. native, a son and a father, Army veteran, Street Sense vendor, homeless advocate and social services professional. Through it all, his core characteristics – the things that made him Brooks – remained the same.
We first met a long time ago – likely 2004 or 2005 – after Street Sense moved from its 14th and K location to the Church of the Epiphany offices on G Street. Brooks originally came to us to sell newspapers.
Brooks sold the paper with great ease. He would sell out a bundle (150 papers back then) in an afternoon at Metro Center. He’d come up to the office and write his column, “Through My Eyes.” He dropped dimes of wisdom – or sometimes just his own hyperbole and bluster – and promote his column when he sold the paper.
Back then, the office got loud. We often had a dozen volunteers and vendors crammed into one little room. Vendors rested their feet, checked email, made calls, played chess, and had a range of deep conversations. It felt like the D.C./homeless version of the French salon and my eyes were opened during those years. Arguments would occur, usually about spots to sell the paper or selling techniques and styles. During one altercation that turned physical, Brooks intervened and neutralized the situation quickly. I remember him standing on the fenced-in stairs going up to the second floor, telling me that Laura – the other co-founder – and I need a “buffer.” By buffer, he meant someone who would help manage the volatility that often comes from working with a homeless population. He was willing to be the buffer in exchange for a bundle of papers.
We had a deal. Within a month or so of meeting him, Brooks was our first official vendor manager.
In those early days, Brooks taught me a lot about D.C., that is the real D.C., not the one inhabited by politicians that the rest of America sees. We discussed race and politics. He told me that he was surprised to meet someone from Kentucky – a white guy in his early twenties – who wasn’t racist. He had served in the Army and I believe he had done his Basic training in Kentucky, and his experience there wasn’t great. When my mom and sister visited D.C. and came to the Street Sense office, he even let them know that. But he also quickly commented on how our friendship had changed his opinion. Admissions like that helped put others at ease and allowed for greater dialogue, learning, and self-improvement.
Through the years, after Brooks and I both left Street Sense, we maintained our friendship. My wife Rebecca and I moved into a house in Langdon Park in northeast D.C. in 2007. Brooks seemed proud that I had moved to the real D.C., and he had also moved to a spot off South Dakota avenue. He came to a couple of parties at our house and one time he brought his son, who he had just met. He was proud of his son and doted on him, as he did his other children.
In 2013, my wife Rebecca and I attended the 10-year celebration for Street Sense. We brought our own son, Nathaniel, and introduced him to our friends, including Brooks. Brooks was dressed in a suit and fedora, as he often did. He held Nathaniel for a picture. Nathaniel, who was still an infant, had cake on his fingers, and some of that cake ended up on Brooks’s suit. It was at that moment that Brooks declared Nathaniel his godson, and that his godson could get cake on him whenever he wanted.
Last September, I had the honor of toasting Brooks at his 65th birthday party. It was at the VFW Hall in Morningside, Maryland, on Suitland Road. It was a wonderfully orchestrated event put together by his fiancé – and later wife – Cynthia Prospers. There were pictures, cake, a buffet, and even centerpieces with flowers and goldfish. My wife Rebecca and I took a few goldfish home and still have two.
A few of us – including Brooks – said at the time that the speeches almost felt like eulogies and that the event almost felt like a funeral, but in a celebratory way. It was a rare opportunity to recognize a rare, and truly unique, individual.
One of the stories I shared was when I had been accepted to the Harvard School of Public Health. Rebecca and I weren’t sure that it made sense to move to Boston, MA. I called Brooks. His advice was this: “Don’t mess this up. Go get your letters. Come back and make a difference for those who need it.” Hearing this advice from him mattered to me. Rebecca and I moved to Boston, I got my Masters, and we have moved back so that I could work in the field of public health.
Whenever I have talked to him since moving back, he’d always ask me my title and my current role. While that doesn’t matter to me, it mattered to him. He’d always say, “I’m so proud of you Ted. I knew you back before you were all big-time.” I definitely don’t feel “big-time,” but Brooks sure felt that way about those he believed in.
Brooks, I’m proud to have known you and called you a friend. Thank you for making the world a better place. You have left an indelible mark on those who knew you. Save a game of chess for me.