Charles Monroe, chair of the County Board, was responding to citizen comment Saturday morning when he collapsed.
The Board's Jan. 11 meeting was Monroe's first real meeting as chair. But at 9:20 a.m., a ruptured brain aneurysm caused a massive, catastrophic stroke. Emergency personnel were on the scene within minutes, and took him to Virginia Hospital Center-Arlington. He died at 12:07 p.m.
As news of his death spread across the county this weekend, residents struggled to come to terms with the loss of a lifelong Arlingtonian who spent his life serving the community.
“We lost a great one today,” said Toni Copeland, clerk of the county board.
Monroe was elected to the board in 1999, after years of community activism, championing such causes as affordable housing, helping the financially disadvantaged and increasing minority participation in government.
Board members gathered with hospital staff Saturday afternoon to relay the news of Monroe’s death to reporters. “He was at his best today at the board meeting,” said Paul Ferguson, Board vice chair. He will take over as chair at a Friday, Jan. 17, meeting of the four board members.
Ferguson called Monroe’s performance at the meeting “very eloquent” and said there had been no sign of illness prior to Monroe’s collapse.
Favola too said the illness was a shock. Even as Monroe began to slump in his chair, Favola said, she and other board members did not realize the seriousness of the situation. “You could not tell something was really wrong,” she said. “It happened so quickly.”
MONROE RECEIVED IMMEDIATE assistance from volunteer firefighters who happened to be speaking at the meeting.
Several of the volunteers helped Monroe out of his chair and performed emergency procedures behind the dais while waiting for paramedics. Ed Plaugher, chief of the Arlington Fire Department, reported that ambulance crews arrived at the scene exactly two minutes after being dispatched.
But due to the nature of the stroke, doctors said, little could be done. The injury to Monroe’s brain was “immediate and sudden and massive,” said Christopher McManus, Monroe’s family physician.
In the board room, people quickly realized the seriousness of Monroe’s condition. “Just from my standpoint, it doesn’t look good,” said Scott Springston, a resident in attendance at the meeting, after Monroe was taken to the hospital. “All of a sudden he just looked funny and slumped over,” he said.
Board member Barbara Favola said that concerns about medical treatment and response times, as well as future government plans, were unimportant for now. “Now is the time to reflect on Charles’ life,” she said.
REMEMBERING A GENTLEMAN was the order of business for many. Monroe chose “gentleman” as his license plate, and those who knew him best said it was an appropriate term for the soft-spoken, sincere man. “Gentleman is really the word that describes him,” said Copeland.
Monroe’s wife Barbara said Monday that the same dignity and honesty that earned him the respect of his constituents came through in his private life as well.
“He had respect for everyone, and I think that showed in the way he dealt with people,” she said. “He was that way personally and professionally.”
Board members talked of the role he played in ensuring that everyone received a fair hearing before the government. “He was one of the kindest, fairest people that any of us had ever met,” said Ferguson. “He was just a joy to work with.”
Those who knew Monroe only as a politician who jumped into the nitty-gritty details of public service didn’t know the whole person though.
“He was an artist,” said Barbara Monroe. “He painted…. He loved music; he was a very wonderful cello player,” she said. She spoke Monday of a man who enjoyed the “more serene activities” of life, and spent time on the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, and at the beach with family. The quiet dignity of those activities reflected his personality, which she said remained unchanged over the years.
The public will remember Monroe as a leader, but Barbara Monroe was more concerned with his legacy within the family. “I certainly want his sons to remember him exactly the way he was,” she said, “As a wonderful father, and as the gentleman he was.”
LOSING MONROE NOW, at the outset of his chairmanship, is particularly difficult, said Favola.
Just 10 days prior to his death, in the Board's traditional New Year's Day organizational meeting, Monroe outlined his priorities for the upcoming year, which included revitalizing Columbia Pike, increasing citizen feedback, investing in local small businesses and ridding the county of dangerous and dilapidated properties.
Monroe’s vision for the county will continue, Favola said Saturday. “Many of us are still committed to his goals. He was so visionary and energetic,” she said.
Talmadge Williams, president of the Arlington NAACP, agreed and expressed concern about the future of a number of projects in the county without Monroe.
Monroe had been involved for years on Columbia Pike Revitalization efforts, and had made the Pike a top priority for this year. Williams said the NAACP chose locations along the Pike for its new office and for the Black Heritage Museum partly to help with revitalization efforts.
That part of the county plays home to much of the county’s minority population, Williams said, so the NAACP supported Monroe’s efforts to make revitalization a top priority.
“I think Charles was the right man at the right time to make that happen,” he said.
Moving on with business proved especially difficult for Williams, who said he had lost both a “dear friend” and “a giant in the black community.”
PLANS FOR MARTIN Luther King Jr. Day celebrations included a speech by Monroe. Williams came to tears as he removed Monroe’s name from the program. “God, I hate to see him go,” he said. “It still isn’t real to me. I can still see that smiling guy come and give me a handshake, and it was a genuine handshake.”
Monroe was one political leader who didn’t shy away from his constituents, or from issues important to minorities, Williams said. “I’m more down where the people are,” he said, “and Charles was right there with me.”
Meetings of the YMCA board, of which Monroe were a member, were a good indication of Monroe’s , he said, were a good indication of Monroe’s power as a leader. Williams said for many years arguments were common, but Monroe’s presence brought order and compromise. “He was a quiet-talking fellow, but when he talked people listened,” said Williams.
But it wasn’t just minorities who respected Monroe’s leadership. “I think very few people perceived him as ‘the African-American board member,’” said Daniel Steen, chair of the Arlington Democratic Committee. “I think they just saw him as a board member.”
Even political opponents remembered him fondly. Monroe won his seat on the board in 1999 by defeating Mike Lane’s reelection bid. After hearing the news of Monroe’s death, Lane immediately issued a statement saying, “Charles was a consummate gentleman and an Arlingtonian who loved his community. He leaves an unmatched legacy of lifetime service. I will miss him, as will all Arlingtonians.”
PLANS FOR MEMORIALS are still underway, with several groups discussing the possibility of scholarship funds to benefit Monroe’s children. “That’s sort of the initial reaction – let’s help out the family,” Steen said Monday. “To my mind they really sacrificed…they gave of Charles [throughout his political career],” he said.
Indeed, Barbara Monroe said that at times it was hard sharing Monroe with the community he worked for. She remained uninvolved in his political life and said that they came to an understanding about his divided time. “We worked it out,” she said. “I know he really, really loved Arlington County.”
His dedication to serving the county made him a fixture at community events throughout his career. “Whenever anything was going on in the community, Charles was there,” said Williams.
Steen agreed, and said that Monroe’s accessibility to his constituents was one trait that set him apart as a leader. Even actions that seemed unimportant to many people, like making sure potholes got filled quickly, endeared Monroe to the people of Arlington, said Steen; it showed that Monroe’s commitment to improving life in Arlington went down to “the nitty-gritty.”