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Community mourns loss of longtime CDC leader
(Published April 18, 2005)

A memorial service is expected to be held in mid-May for the leader of the East of the River Community Development Corp., who was struck by a car and killed April 12 as she attempted to cross the street at Southern Avenue and Suitland Road SE.

Police are continuing to investigate the early morning accident. Friends said W. Retta Gilliam, 43, of 2031 36th St. SE was probably on her routine morning jog when she was struck in a crosswalk at 7:33 a.m. Gilliam, president and executive director of Ward 8's CDC, was taken to Prince George's County Hospital, where she was pronounced dead at 8:17 a.m. of undisclosed injuries sustained in the crash.

The driver of the car, Beverly Robinson of Suitland, Md., was traveling northbound on Suitland Road and veered from the roadway, crashing into a tree, after striking Gilliam. Police said Robinson, 29, was admitted to Howard University Hospital in "undetermined condition" and had not been charged at press time.

Gilliam was buried April 16 in her hometown of Sheveport, La., following a funeral service there. A memorial service is being planned in the District, tentatively for May 14.

Terry B. Thomas, chairman of the East of the River CDC's Board of Directors, called an emergency meeting of the CDC's board and advisory panel for April 13 to discuss the tragedy.

"It's devastating – a real loss to the organization, to the staff and to the community," Thomas told The Common Denominator. "To Retta, the community came first. She gave up a tremendous amount of her own time."

Dawnn Leary, the CDC's director of community planning and empowerment, said that "Ward 8 has lost a true champion and fighter."

"She was not only a boss – she was a mentor, a leader and a friend," Leary said.

Councilman Marion Barry, D-Ward 8, called Gilliam "a great asset to our community and our city."

"Retta will be sorely missed by all who had the pleasure of knowing her, and those who never got to meet her, because of her profound commitment in bringing change. … We all should continue to carry on her work and, certainly, carry it on with the spirit and determination of Retta," Barry said.

Councilman Kwame R. Brown, D-At Large, who also knew Gilliam as a Ward 7 neighbor, said "her sincerity, determination and unselfishness in helping others will never be forgotten."

Gilliam was nearing the eighth anniversary of taking the helm at the East of the River CDC, where she focused much of her work in the past few years on projects to develop affordable housing in Ward 8. Under her leadership, the CDC became a partner in the development of Camp Simms into a mixed-use residential and retail center near the Congress Heights Metro Station on Alabama Avenue SE.

Five years after Gilliam took over the CDC's leadership, she presided over the grand opening in September 2002 of its new Plaza 8 headquarters building at 3029 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE in Congress Heights. The CDC's move from rented office space in the nearby Washington Gas building signaled a major expansion of the nonprofit organization's role in the community.

Gilliam served on numerous neighborhood and city task forces devoted to housing and economic development initiatives, and was a mayoral appointee to the D.C. Historic Preservation Review Board from 2000-2004. She was Ward 8's representative for the D.C. Public Schools 21st Century Initiative.

She brought 15 years of experience in community and economic development to her role at the CDC in 1997, ranging from her service as a U.S. Peace Corps business adviser in Kenya to her work on Wall Street as an investment associate to her founding of the Gilliam Group, a consulting company that specialized in entrepreneurial training, financial management and real estate development.

Among her many affiliations, Gilliam served on the Enterprise Foundation Neighborhood Advisory Council, the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development Board of Directors, the Far Southeast Family Strengthening Collaborative Finance Committee, and as treasurer of the Trenton Park Neighborhood Corp.

—By Kathryn Sinzinger

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator