Hundreds of people gathered Friday to honor the late Ben’s Chili Bowl founder Ben Ali, who was known as much for his big smile and sharp tongue as he was for his chili half-smokes.
Ali, 82, passed away Oct. 8 from congestive heart failure. Friends, family and community figures like D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham gathered at the Lincoln Theatre Friday, located near Ali’s restaurant on historic U Street, to honor his memory in a “celebration of life” ceremony.
Bernard Demczuk, GW’s assistant vice president for D.C. relations, had maintained a personal relationship with Ali and served as master of ceremonies for the event. Demczuk, who often brings students to the U Street hotspot, opened the ceremony with reflections on Ali’s life.
“This is a day of celebration,” Demczuk said. “Ben Ali was much, much more than Ben’s Chili Bowl. As long as we keep loving and remembering him, Ben will be here.”
Ben’s Chili Bowl opened its doors in 1958 as the burgeoning black community on U Street was facing the realities of segregation. Ali, who came to America from Trinidad and Tobago, gave back to his community more than just chili dogs and fries, speakers at the memorial service said. The diner has drawn celebrities and high-profile politicians from all walks of life, including the only two people “who eat for free,” President Barack Obama, who dropped by in January for a chili dog and cheese fries, and Bill Cosby, a longtime fan.
Kamal Ben Ali, Ali’s son, said his father lived his life to the fullest and recounted his father’s efforts to honor Martin Luther King Jr. after his assassination in 1968.
“After the ’68 riots, the streets were devastated and he came up with an idea,” Ali said. “He had 10,000 Martin Luther King Jr. calendars made up and people came from all over to pick up these calendars and when they tried to pay, he said – ‘No, they are free.’ That was the point he became loved by the community.”
The ceremony was peppered with anecdotes and examples of Ben Ali’s work in the community, which included a stint in the D.C. Chamber of Commerce; but Ali’s sons provided a more personal look at the legendary figure behind one of D.C.’s most celebrated destinations.
“To stand here and think about my father and his life, it really is beautiful,” another of his sons, Haidar “Sage” Ben Ali, said. “But let’s just be real – the man could cuss.”
Nadine Whittington, a native Washingtonian who knew Ben Ali and attended the ceremony, said he left an indelible mark on her and the community.
“Do you know what the most important thing about Ben is?” Whittington asked. “It’s that he is a man that helps people who want to be helped. If you have any desire to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, he’s going to pull you.”
Freshman Suzanne Arnott did not attend the ceremony, but stopped by Ben’s with her parents for some chili just after the service ended.
“It just seems like a D.C. place,” Arnott said. “It was delicious.”