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Special Guest In Home State: Rangers’ Washington Reflects On Life Then And Now In Louisiana
LAFAYETTE, La. — Fats Domino played at the Hideaway Club in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward until it was torn down in 1949 to make way for the Desire Projects.
The $24 million housing project is isolated from the rest of the city by railroad tracks, the Florida Canal and the Industrial Canal, which is where one of five levees was breached during Hurricane Katrina and caused the flooding in the Ninth Ward.
The Free Southern Theater was located in the Desire Projects, and the neighborhood in East New Orleans has a long and rich musical heritage, with Second Line jazz parades held regularly in the streets. But the isolated neighborhood also became one of the city’s most crime-ridden areas until it was overwhelmed with flooding as a result of Hurricane Katrina.
Robert and Fannie Washington and their 10 children were among the first families to move into the Desire Projects back in 1956, when the city was trying to encourage home ownership for African-Americans.
“You adjust to your environment,” Ron Washington said, looking back a half-century later. “I lived in the projects, but I never had any problems there. We were one of the first families that moved into the projects when they opened in New Orleans. My mom kept a tight hold on us. After I moved out, it got worse.”
Fifty years have passed, and Ron and Gerry Washington’s home is still in the Ninth Ward, or at least it was until Hurricane Katrina hit and Washington saw on television that his home at the corner of Perch and Dorchester Street — just 3 1/2 miles from where Domino once played — was now standing in seven feet of water up to the gutters.
“When the hurricane hit, being in hurricanes all my life, I believed nothing would happen that didn’t normally happen,” Washington said. “I figured it would blow some shingles off the roof, blow some of the windows out and let a little rain inside.
“I never expected to come back and find my house seven feet under water.”
Eighteen months later, he is in Lafayette for a dinner that benefits the Louisiana Housing Authority. Dave Stewart is here, as is Houston Astros general manager Tim Pupura. So too is Will Clark, the former Rangers first baseman who had to move from New Orleans to Baton Rouge after the hurricane.
Washington is greeted at the dinner as a special guest. These are people he has been around for most of his adult life, and they are thrilled that he is now the Rangers’ new manager.
“The first time I talked to him, I said, ‘Hooray for hard work,’” said Roger Cador, who has been the head baseball coach at Southern University in Baton Rouge for 23 years. “It’s a reward for the dedication to his trade and all the time he has put in making ballplayers better.”
Washington was named manager a little over two months ago, and he has spent much of the time since then getting ready to take on his new responsibilities: meeting with players, hiring coaches, doing public relations work for the club and staying in close contact with general manager Jon Daniels.
But New Orleans and Southern Louisiana remain close to his heart. This is still his home. He has been living in an apartment outside New Orleans since the hurricane hit, but he is still determined to rebuild.
Like the rest of the Ninth Ward and other parts of the city, the process is slow. Washington is not to the point where he is ready to give tours.
“Right now, I’ve got the walls up, the doors in and I’ve got the trim on,” Washington said. “I’ve got to get the kitchen done, my bathroom done and some floors put in. I need to get my air conditioning system put in. I had it in, but they tried to steal it so I had the people come and pull it out. I’ll wait until I go home. When I know I’m going to be in it, then we’ll put the air conditioning back in.
“It’s rough because this is when the riff-raff comes out. There’s not enough police to watch everything. This is when people take advantage of people who are having bad times.”
He is asked about the future of the Ninth Ward and East New Orleans.
“I feel good about it,” Washington said. “I think it’s going to come back. If they get enough people in the neighborhood, they’ll stop that. There are just not enough people in the neighborhood yet.”
He and his wife, Gerry, have found a home in Dallas, where they will live during the season. But they both grew up in New Orleans and have made it their permanent home since they were married in 1972. They have no plans to change now.
“This is where I was born and raised,” Washington said. “This is where my family is. This is all I know. My wife’s family is there and they are very close. We’ve never thought about moving anywhere else. … I’ve never had any reason to leave.”
Not even a Hurricane named Katrina.
Washington is a product of New Orleans. He was born in the Third Ward and grew up in the Ninth. When he was in ninth grade, he and his friends were put on a bus and sent four miles away to integrate John McDonough High School.
He was the eighth of 10 children. Robert Washington drove a truck for a Frozen Foods company five days a week. On the weekends, he would do gardening for the wealthy families of the city living in the famous Garden District.
“My daddy taught me how to persevere,” Washington said. “He taught me honesty and he taught me if you want something, go out and get it. I never saw my daddy get upset about a lot of things.
“There may have been things he should have been upset and wasn’t. Maybe he was showing his kids that when you’re hit with hard times, you deal with it. You figure out a way to crush it.”
His mother was a homemaker and the Washington house was the center of the community.
“She was the backbone of my family,” Washington said. “My dad worked seven days a week, so she held everything together. She took care of the whole neighborhood. Your friends could always come there. My mom didn’t mind. That was her way of keeping an eye on us.
“For me and my brothers, our escape was sports, mainly playing in the neighborhoods and in the parks. There wasn’t much else you could do.”
Washington, born April 29, 1952, came of age in the 1960s when the Civil Rights movement was exploding across the South. McDonough was integrated just as Washington was going into his freshman year.
Washington and other African-Americans started out in the minority. By his senior year, most of the white kids had left the school.
“I think we only had three whites on the football team,” Washington said.
He had been isolated in his own neighborhood until McDonough. He knew about segregation and he knew that when he got on a city bus, he was expected to sit in the back. But McDonough took him out of the neighborhood and into a new environment.
“As a youngster, I always faced what I was supposed to face so I could have peace of mind,” Washington said. “I didn’t want to be walking around and looking over my shoulder. If I had a beef with somebody, I always stood up to that beef.
“Back in my day, you could fight and it would be over with. You didn’t have to worry about somebody stabbing you from behind or shooting you.”
He was quarterback on the football team and catcher on the baseball team. His oldest brother, Robert, had injured his hip playing football, and his mother refused to let any of her other sons play. But Washington got around it by telling her he was at baseball practice.
He was among the best athletes in the city.
“My older brothers used to take me with them, and I used to play against older guys,” Washington said. “When I played against guys my age, no matter what the sport was, I overshadowed them. If we played baseball, if they threw the ball and I hit it, it was a home run.
“I used to face older guys, and they used to do things to me. My older brothers would tell me, if you can’t figure out a way to do it, you need to quit coming out here. We’re not going to fight your battles.”
He played American Legion baseball, which is big in New Orleans. The University of New Orleans spotted him and wanted him to play there.
But the Kansas City Royals had a tryout camp and Washington attended. He took two swings and almost knocked the pitcher’s head off with scorching line drives. The Royals were impressed, especially since Washington had a strong arm and could fly as a runner.
They offered him a contract. He thought he was going right to the big leagues.
“I was naïve,” Washington said. “I thought when you signed, you went straight to the big leagues. I was shocked when they sent me to Sarasota, Florida.”
He signed with the Royals on July 17, 1970, and was sent to the Royals Baseball Academy. Gerry and Ron, who met in 10th grade, were married in 1972. He was a professional baseball player for 20 seasons.
“She has been an integral part of my career,” Washington said. “My first five years in professional baseball, she had to work, too. She worked as a secretary in New Orleans. I was making $500 a month playing baseball.”
Washington carries New Orleans with him, the lessons he learned in the Ninth Ward and in the St. Bernard Projects, from the truck driver who was a part-time gardener, the mother who was the center of the neighborhood and a high school that underwent the difficulties of integration.
“When I went into pro baseball, I wasn’t looking at people in the sense of black and white or Latin,” Washington said. “I was looking at their attitude and personality. If they didn’t want to be around me, I made sure I wasn’t around them. I made sure I stayed clear of you. Believe me, I was on guard if you came around me.
“I got that from my dad. I look at a situation to see what I can do, how I can handle the situation. If there’s nothing I can do to handle the situation, I walk away from it.”
The hurricane was tough to handle. But he will not walk away from New Orleans. His family is there. It is his home. He said he has not sat back and allowed himself to reflect too much on the pain and the trauma that the hurricane caused.
“Sometimes I think I may have moved too fast,” Washington said. “As soon as I got back home, I went running around trying to get things back together, try to get my family back in New Orleans. I lost my house, but I still had my job and means to take care of my family.
“I’m very lucky. I lost everything, just like everybody else in New Orleans, but I didn’t lose my means of taking care of my family. My living is baseball. I didn’t lose that. There are people who lost their homes, their jobs, have no more means of living.
“Compared to them, I’m very lucky.”