A birthday note from Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis shared this essay, which was read by DJ’s brother Wayne at the celebration of DJ’s 60th birthday:

DJ: a sitting prince in the spiritual aristocracy of the world. He raises the soul quotient of a room by merely entering. He has led a rich and passionate life and remains deeply engaged with the sweet and sour facts of life. Having known him for over thirty-five years, I have to say that the intensity of his optimism and activism has increased with the same velocity that he has outpaced the life expectancy of someone with Morquio Syndrome.

Photo of Wynton Marsalis and DJ Riley

DJ catches up with his friend Wynton Marsalis.

Of the many and best salutations that he has received this evening, I would like to second and third them and add that he is all of the best of what has been observed and even more, because of his beliefs and of his belief, not because of, or in spite of, his physical limitations. DJ’s greatest achievement is himself. What he has overcome to achieve the depth of personhood that we all celebrate and cherish has nothing to do with any disease. He has manifested such deep personal growth for such a long time because of the size of his heart and, because he is willing to grapple with uncomfortable internal problems until they are resolved.

You know, a disability can be a smokescreen for all types of things. Well, it’s understandable because we all wear masks that play to our strengths and cloak our fears. It could be a suit, a car, clothing that shows off positive attributes, makeup, a fancy home, a clannish way of speaking, tattoos, all kinds of stuff. We think we can protect ourselves with the make-believe armor of style or with a cultivated group of like-minded friends. But underneath it all, we are only spirits that animate the bodies we are born into. The spirit is the largest and most definitive part of who we are; that’s why people always seem so tiny in the casket. DJ wears no mask. For those of us who are fortunate to know him, he is as ubiquitous, free and affirming as the wind. I just love him and love knowing him and having known him.

At the risk of boring you, let me conclude with a story. In the late 90s our orchestra played a swing dance a few hours from LA. DJ came to check us out. The dance was well under way, but people, being shy and not really knowing how to dance the style, were just standing around looking at the empty floor. Here comes DJ breaking out there cutting values with his electric wheelchair, and absolutely doing his thing with so much joy and insouciance. It was unforgettable and absolutely for real. Next thing you know, here come people onto the floor. He got’em out there from a wheelchair!

Damn! We talked about that for years.

After the gig, as we laughed and joked about his dancing style, I asked, “Why did you do it?” He said, “Man, I came here to dance. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I did.” And that’s what he does. Makes stuff happen while also talking a pile of shit. Sixty! Damn!! His old ass shouldn’t even be here. What a blessing for all of us. Happy Birthday, DJ. Whatever greatness is, you are it.

Happy 60th Birthday to DJ from Dr Harry Edwards

DJ ! CONGRATULATIONS and HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MY BROTHER !

I have known all manner of men over my 75 years on this planet – from Dr. King, to Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, H Rap Brown, Huey Newton, Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and Kareem, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Barack Obama, NFL HO F Coach Bill Walsh, and today’s activist heroes Le Bron, Steph Curry, and Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid – all men of courage, character, vision, and commitment who I count as friends. And through all of those acquaintances and relationships, I have found one judgement – stated of course by a woman – to be ABSOLUTELY CORRECT : “Courage is the greatest of ALL virtues – because without it, no other virtue is possible !”. By that measure, I count you in this group as well. In living your life, in continuing to learn and teach, to grow and reach for all that you can be, you have come to epitomize and model that MAN that we all want to BELIEVE that we are — while, frankly, hoping all along that we will never be truly tested as to the validity of that view of ourselves.

DJ , you are everything that I hope to be as a man, as a friend, and as a model for all of the young brothers coming along behind us. You are my hero !

Happy 60th, my Brother – And God Bless !
HarryEdwards ( and family)

Photo of Dr Harry Edwards interviewing Bill Russell and Jim Brown.

Harry Edwards, Professor Emeritus of the University of California in Berkeley, right, Jim Brown, Hall of Fame running back for the Cleveland Browns, left, and Bill Russell, Hall of Fame center for the NBA, discuss sports issues at the Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library. (Photo by Eric Draper – PUBLIC DOMAIN)

60th Birthday reflections from DJ’s former nurse Marianne

Photo of DJ and Marianne

DJ and Marianne – Such good memories!

Dear D.J.

I always told you I’d be here to celebrate your 60st birthday and I am terribly sorry I cannot make it.

In February 1994 I lived in a strange new country, not feeling at ease with the city and the language. Being totally frustrated, since I didn’t have a job, and studying to become an RN was boring, I responded to an ad in the Daily Bruin, in which someone was looking for an aide. 

I called the number, couldn’t quite understand what was said (due to the Bi-PaP) and complied to a job interview- which was the start of a long friendship. 

Our working relation was not always easy, me being an experienced nurse, thinking I knew perfectly well what was good for you, and you being DJ (need I say more?): my smartass patient who knew perfectly well what he wanted. And never the twain shall meet… 

I clearly remember the day we had a fight and I was yelling at you. You calmly replied that you somehow understood what I meant, but could I please yell in English the next time I was mad at you?

I worked for you during the OJ Simson trial. We, together with your roommate Dennis, talked a lot about it. I ‘stupid white girl from Europe’ knew close to nothing and didn’t understand the impact of this trial. I learned so much from you. About the judicial system, American society, music, movies, really really bad TV shows (I can’t believe you still like them!) 

And of course you taught me to love LA. We had a good time, even when we quarreled. 

I learned to understand you, your eloquent use of the language. I remember you teaching me a new word every day. I helped you staying (sort of) healthy. I still do not approve of pizza for breakfast, but I did feed you lots of it. And the tiramisu which I sometimes made for you was probably even worse…

You helped me by sending me to ESL–class where I not only became more confident about my English, but also made lots of friends. You met quite a couple of them and we loved to party together.

You were concerned about me: you hated my smoking and bicycling to town. 

Instead of a paying me a big salary, you introduced me to American culture: I remember getting tickets to the Alvin Ailey dancers in the Wiltern Theatre. You sent me to the To Night show when George Clooney was guest. And you were mad at me that I hadn’t asked for a picture- but I never was that keen of pictures like you… (and I was also a bit shyer than you)

We were and are friends. I’ll never forget the day that I turned up at your apartment clearly upset and you immediately canceled a date, mentioning that you had to stay home since your nurse really needed you that day…

You visited us twice in the Netherlands. We went to Amsterdam, Scheveningen and The Hague.

I remember John wanting my neighbors in Utrecht to play chess with him, and Baron who was looking forwards to a nice hotel bed, but ended up on a mattress on the floor… And yes: even then we quarreled. You had not arranged everything as I would have liked, but of course everything went smooth. Like you told me once: “who is going to stop a black man in a wheelchair?” So you succeeded in going to a totally sold out North Sea Jazz Festival without tickets…

We have been back to LA several times, and I always try to see you. Each time I’m amazed that you are still hanging in there, enjoying life. Every time I’m amazed by how you get me to work for you again: calling people to arrange dinners at places who do not take reservations, and are not well equipped for wheelchairs, but in the end we’re always having a good time. 

I’m so happy that I read that tiny ad all those years ago. What a lucky girl I was to have met you and what a lucky woman I am to still know you. 

I love you so much.

Thank you for teaching me how to love life.

Big hug

Marianne

60th Birthday Greetings from DJ’s High School Teacher

Dear Donald,

It is my pleasure to congratulate you on the celebration of your 60th Birthday. As you know we first met while on a home instruction assignment. I was responsible for teaching you many of your High School subjects. You were, in effect, quite a surprise to me – an exceptional student with a pleasant personality to match. Your strength was in your retentional skills. Once taught, the topic stuck in your head like glue. You continually asked for and received learning material that was above and beyond the typical curriculum. One powerful thing started to develop. After you mastered a topic, you immediately formed “Opinions”. Usually when we watched the Walter Cronkite News Program you would comment on all the topics of the day. Your comments seemed to me to be mainly of a constructive nature but sometimes your criticisms of news topics yielded opinions far beyond your years.

Over the years we have kept in touch mainly through emails. You flawlessly reinforced your ideas of music, family, and lately politics. I doubt many persons could match such verbal arguments and suggestions.

At your induction into the Long Branch Academic Hall of Fame I wasn’t surprised to hear of your educational accomplishments. No wonder your emails contained not only details, but convincing facts to prove your points.

Congratulations again and please keep those emails coming…they are terrific.

With Love and Pride,
Mr. Krulikowski

60th Birthday Greetings to DJ from Jonathan

Hi DJ,
I am honored that you are including me in your 60 year celebration. We all touch each other’s lives in ways we are not aware of at the time. You have shared much love and hope with those you have touched and have helped so many.
You were the first person to reach out to me at the John L. Montgomery Care Center in Freehold and because of you we were able to create our Assistive Technology Center which has truly changed the lives of so many of our residents.
There is so much more ahead of us that your love will reach. The words you always choose to close each letter you write says it all. “Much love, DJ”
Much love
Jonathan

55 and counting – What a blessing!

July 2, 1958 — 55 years ago, what a milestone!  That’s what birthdays are, days to be shared with the people you love, days to be remembered by people that care about you.  I had another good birthday brunch on Sunday, June 30, at NOLA restaurant in downtown Los Angeles (down home New Orleans buffet).  Everybody seemed to enjoy the atmosphere.  It was a sweltering afternoon in Los Angeles, which made it feel like being in Louisiana.

DJ and his Mom celebrate his 55th birthday

DJ and his Mom celebrate his 55th birthday

I was blessed from visits by my buddy Rich Yarbough and his family from Arizona, my “brothers” Lance and Tony from Sacramento, my college buddy Ira and his family, and Ed Lewis, also from Cal.  Max, Dorene and Ceci came in from New Mexico in time to make it.  Of course my mom and dad and my brother Wayne made it official.  People in your life that love you make it special.  My nurse Alma worked that day to make sure I could be comfortable and safe. My other nurse Natalie and her fella Mike brought baby Scarlett so that she could be a part of the festivities and make things extra special.  Babies have a way of doing that.  She’s my newest dream girl!  I’m thankful that Baron’s mother, Mom Farwell (my other mother), was able to make it also.  She’s so important to so many of us.  And my “sister” Lillibeth also came.  I love her so much.  She’s such a champion for people and my hero.   What a day it was!  Baron and my folks are there for me, making each day and year worthwhile.

A few people weren’t able to make it.  My buddy Brian, Cardell, and a few more were missing, but their love was felt.  That Tuesday, July 2 (which was my actual birthday), some people came by my place for my second favorite soul food, Chinese food, and cake.  All in all, between the visits, the parties, and the food, and of course messages from friends from all over, via e-mail, Facebook, and phone, it was a great birthday, and I’m so thankful.

Birthdays are your special gifts from God.  They go along with all the people and experiences he’s blessed you to have.  None of it is to be taken for granted.  All of it is to be cherished and shared.  When your birthday comes again, don’t see it as getting old.  See it as getting richer.  Be thankful and share it with the people you love.  It means as much to them as it does to you.

I’m still working on shoring up my nursing support system.  I’m so thankful to have it.  I’d love to make it to the big 60, so I can share it with my nephew when he graduates and other people that I love along the way.  I’m thankful now and blessed for what I’ve had.  I sure miss Joanne, Granny, Sissie, Charles, Steven, and now Lisa.  I’ve got a lot to look forward to, and I’m determined to make the most of what God gives me.  Remember and think of me for that.  Take an example, do your best, be thankful, and share it!

DJ 54

Last week was a special week for me. Monday, July 2, I turned 54. My birthday though really started the prior week, when the Supreme Court upheld Obama-Care and gave me and a lot of other Obama supporters our first serious foothold on the positive side of the upcoming election (or should I say re-election). For different reasons, it was a surprise to many. Those of us tried and true supporters have been looking for something that would make Americans believe that they had something constructive they could get from Obama. There’s so little extra to go around, in terms of resources in this sparse limited environment. I’m sure Obama will take this victory and weave it into a fabric of hope and positivity so we can get a chance at 4 more years to fulfill the vision and bring America back to a place of solvency and uplift.

Anyway, after that, I could concentrate more on the upcoming blessing that I had coming on July 2. My chosen brother, Baron, my mom, and my true brother, Wayne, were determined to help me celebrate this substantive milestone. They put together a wonderful Southern family style brunch at NOLA’s, a New Orleans like restaurant/bistro in Los Angeles. Baron left the guest list up to me. We were thinking of about 15 people to begin with. Baron said the final count was more like 30+. I was sorry that we didn’t estimate the attendance better, since I would hate to create the impression that I was taking advantage of Baron’s ongoing and super loving support. As it turned out, all but about 5 people (who were surely missed) showed up. My uncle, Jasmine, and my nurse Alma and her husband, were the first to arrive. We held the place down til about 3:00, listening to music, enjoying the brunch, and laughing and talking, like we always do. What a blessing! People like Brian, Ted, Kevin, and family showed up, as did Nick, Ellis, Mike and Natalie, Hyacinth, Patrice, Rob, Steve McKeever and his family, and my boy Mitch (who “photoged” the whole event). Lots of you have me on Facebook. Thank you for the greetings. Mitch and Wayne are going to put some pictures on Facebook as soon as they can. Dorothy, thanks again for picking up my brother and making sure he could spend some quality time with me and the rest of us.

Yeah, birthdays are special. Those of us who’ve done something right by the people we love are able to experience some indication of that on our special day. Because of the kind of family and friends I have, I’ve experienced it for 54 years now, and I’m so grateful. I would like to be able to do it a few more years. My oldest nephew is 15 now, in high school. Tommy, I’d like to be around when you graduate and get ready to go to college. I pray that I will be strong enough to share that experience with you, your parents and grandparents, and all of our friends.

Thanks again Baron for being the quality person that you are, and mom, dad and Wayne, for giving me the kind of love and support that’s willing me through this portion of my wonderful life.

Oh, I forgot to mention LaTanya and Michael. LaTanya is Michael’s mother. Michael is a young man who is a talented artist and a charming and endearing person that I met almost 30 years ago during Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition days. His mother and father love him, just as my mom and dad love me. Because of that, he has flourished and given the world lots of art and other beautiful things from his spirit. Although he’s adapted to life with cerebral palsy, like me, Michael is a fighter and a lover, and everybody loves him. God don’t make no mistakes when he gives you good family and friends. Anything is possible in life. I thank all of you for making mine so “wonderful.”

Stay in touch. You know I will. I love you.