When global attention zeroes in on St. George’s Chapel for Prince Phillip’s royal funeral April 17, a quiet corner of northeast Washington will be the focus of attention for the funeral of a local squire.
John Tatum, who learned to swim as a boy in Foggy Bottom in the 1920s and, after becoming a father, grandfather and great-grandfather, won swimming medals so often that he became a leading performer in “Age of Champions,” a 2011 film about aged athletes.
He died March 31, four days shy of 102.
A D.C. native, he was best known as a civic spirit who mentored scores of young men, teaching life skills built around athletics, hard work, competitiveness, perseverance and honesty in his neighborhood in Woodridge near the D.C.-Maryland border.
For at least 30 years, he orchestrated an annual Father’s Day father/son baseball game and cookout. The event grew out of the aftermath of a wake when one of his sons complained that the only time folks in the community gathered was over death.
The result was an annual early summer event to which all were invited and visitors showed up from as far away as the West Coast. Typically, there was 60 pounds of ribs, 240 pounds of fish, 80 pounds of chicken and enough hot dogs and hamburgers to feed an entire neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon.
He grew up in Foggy Bottom, learned to get comfortable in the water in the Reflecting Pool at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, taught himself to swim and swam at the pool at Francis Jr. High. He graduated from Armstrong High and attended Virginia State University where he studied industrial engineering.
He joined the Navy, where the itch to become a frogman slammed up against racism. After two years of Navy duty during World War II, he came to work as a digital systems analyst at what was then known as the Navy Yard, later known as the Naval Gun Factory.
After retiring from the Navy Yard, he took up skiing. But in his 70s, he engaged in competitive swimming with the D.C. Water Wizards, a D.C. Recreation Department swim team for senior citizens.
“He was a remarkable man,” said Audrey Hipkins, Water Wizards, co-chairman. According to her, Tatum was the oldest of the 90 or so members of the team but was one of the most competitive. And he was and among the fastest.
He began competing in the Senior National Games in 2006 and went on to win medals for nine years.
In 2011, for example, after losing his younger brother Bradford to colon cancer, he pushed himself to compete and won two gold medals in the 100-yard freestyle and 50-yard breaststroke and a silver medal in the 50-yard freestyle in the men’s 90-94 age division.
Friends and family will gather to say farewell at a private service at New Smyrna Missionary Baptist Church, 4417 Douglas Street, N.E. on Saturday, April 17 at 9:30 a.m. The virtual service can be viewed at www.newsmyrnambc.org.
Tatum is survived by three of his children, Joyce Wilkinson Brown, John Franklin Tatum Jr (Carol) and Krista Tatum Benjamin (Anthony), 10 grandchildren - Marilynn Scott, Gaye Wilkinson, Candace Pinn (Greg), Erica Dottin (Howard), Alison Stanley, John Tatum III (JoMika), Mark Tatum (Sunaria), Courtney Benjamin (Casey), Paige Benson (Corey) and Evan Benjamin (Alicyn); 24 great-grandchildren, Kevin Johnson (Lisa), Mia Scott, Gabriel Scott, Tatum Wallace (Tyrone), Michael Ricardo, Wynton Marsalis, Simeon Marsalis, Sydney Pinn, Cameron Pinn, Austin Dottin, Jett Dottin, John Tatum IV, Justin Tatum, Jacob Tatum, Jaye Lynn Tatum, Marieke Tatum, Markai Tatum, Sureina Tatum, Camden Fraser, Maisey Fraser, Briana Benjamin, Quentin Benjamin, Anthony Benson, and Vivian Benson; and five great-great-grandchildren, Tehya Johnson, Alana Johnson, Aiden Johnson, Marilynn Tirado and Winter Tirado.