December 10, 1987
Ruleville man takes to streets
By Ward Hubbell
to denounce nuclear weapons
WASHINGTON - Ruleville native Robert Allen Dorrough squats on a sidewalk in front of the White House in Washington, D.C. Helmeted policemen, in numbers approaching those of the tourists, stand by on full alert for the visit of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. As people shuffle by him, a Czechoslovakian tourist approaches Dorrough and asks, "Where are you from?" Dorrough's one word answer: "Mississippi." The Czech continues, "Student?" Dorrough answers, "No, now I am a teacher."
In a way, Ruleville's own Bob Dorrough is a teacher. For five years now he has maintained his vigil. Twenty-four hours a day; seven days a week; in the heat, the cold, the snow and the rain, Bob Dorrough lives on a sidewalk directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. He and his common-law wife, Lynn, sit on flat wooden crates cushioned by wool blankets. Two signs, painted on 4x4 pieces of plywood, serve to block the wind, but more importantly, to display their message to the world: "Humanity must rid the world of nuclear weapons or nuclear weapons will rid the earth of humanity."
When you consider his childhood, Bob Dorrough's self-appointed mission to bring peace to the world is laced with irony. The son of Ann and Vietnam veteran Earnest Dorrough, young Bob and his family spent nine months a year at any number of military installations worldwide. His summers were in Ruleville, under the watchful eye of his grandfather, the pugnacious Charles Monroe "Fisty" Dorrough, long time mayor of Ruleville. According to Bob, he "grew up wearing army fatigues" and always assumed he would pursue a career in the military.
Dorrough initially came to Washington in March, 1983 to research a book he intended to write. While in Washington, he visited the White House and spent time talking to peace activists, some of whom had occupied a Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk since 1981. After only a couple of days, Dorrough decided to temporarily abandon his writing project and join the group.
Dorrough's time now is spent either chipping away at his exhaustive reading list — he estimates having read 1,000 of the 1,500 books on his list — or by talking with the hundreds of tourists that pass by him each day.
"My job is to communicate with those who oppose me, not to get pats on the back from people who agree with what I am doing," says Dorrough.
What Dorrough is actually doing in front of the Executive Mansion day in and day out, is trying to convince people that nuclear weapons are dangerous and that they have made the earth a very unsafe place.
Dorrough has no income and says that he prefers it that way. "Money is just little scraps of paper that cause people to kill each other," he says.
He depends, in part, on food given to him by a community of people that support the protesters. Showers and an occasional night indoors may also be obtained through these sources. For the most part, however, Dorrough sleeps in the open air and gathers his food from garbage cans, a practice he calls "dumpster diving."
By his own admission, life on a Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk often consists of long stretches of boredom. Nevertheless, there have been memorable occasions during Dorrough's five year stay. For example, he says he has seen President Reagan pass by in his motorcade many times over the years. Asked if he ever waves to the President, Dorrough answers, "Sure, I wave to him and he waves back, but then again, I think that he waves to everybody."
Dorrough also remembers one late summer evening in 1985. As he describes it, a man walked out of the White House compound, crossed the street and began to ask him his views on various foreign affairs and defense issues. "We talked about everything from Iran to SDI," said Dorrough. "We talked a long time — from about 2 a.m. until almost dawn." Dorrough described the man as being very inquisitive; not saying much other than to occasionally ask Dorrough his opinion on certain issues.
At the time Dorrough had no idea who the man was. But in November, 1987, while he was reading a newspaper account of the Iran-Contra affair, Dorrough recognized the photograph of the man with whom he had this encounter two years earlier: former NSC staffer, Lt. Colonel Oliver North.
All of Dorrough's memories of Washington street life are not pleasant, however. He has been arrested 13 times over the years for various offenses related to his presence. Also, he says that he doesn't particularly enjoy what he is doing. Dorrough says he would rather be working and living comfortably but there is too much human suffering around him and to return to the material world would be hypocritical.
With the completion of the Reagan-Gorbachev summit, one might hope that Dorrough's vigil could also be nearing an end. Not so, says the protester. Although he is encouraged by this meeting and by the signing of the treaty, Dorrough doesn't expect to change his address any time soon. Bob Dorrough says that he will leave this Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk only when he can be absolutely certain that the world is free of all nuclear weapons.
In the meantime, expect to see Bob Dorrough on the sidewalk, directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, the next time you're in Washington. And, stop by to say "hello" — that's why he's there.
If the world happens to be free of nuclear weapons by the time you get to Washington and you wonder where you can find Bob, he knows the answer to that already. The minute he's convinced the world is safe again, Bob is going directly to the ocean and taking a long swim. After a couple of hours, he says he will probably pick another one of mankind's problems and work to solve it.
(Ward Hubbell, a Cleveland native, is a public relations executive in Washington, D.C.)