Margit Loudermilk of North Hollywood was walking visitors from Germany through Forest Lawn on Saturday, admiring the view from the Hollywood Hills, when she stopped for water at the cemetery’s Liberty Hall.
“I knew something big was going on,” she said, what with the news vans parked outside, black-clad crowd gathered in the rotunda and guards ringing the hall.
She approached a middle-aged woman near the water cooler and asked what was going on.
It’s a funeral, the woman said. My brother’s. His name is Rodney King.
That’s a name that even the Germans knew. Remi Penhalla remembered the shock he felt 20 years ago, when King’s videotaped beating by police was beamed around the world. “It was terrible watching that,” he said. “It’s something you never forget.”
Now there he was posing for a picture with the sister of an international martyr.
“We chatted for a while,” Loudermilk told me. “She was very kind. It was so sweet. And so sad.”
The rest of that day — when Rodney King would be remembered and laid to rest — would feel to me much the same way: so sweet and so sad.
Like most everyone else, I was shocked by the news of King’s unexpected death by apparent drowning in his backyard swimming pool.
I’d been on Rodney King overload. For weeks this spring, his image seemed to be everywhere, as Los Angeles marked the 20th anniversary of the riots that grew out of not-guilty verdicts in his beating by police.
Collectively, we’ve rehashed his misfortune, chronicled his missteps or applauded his humility — depending on what article you read, interview you heard or pundit you believed.
He leaves a complicated legacy. So I was grateful for the invitation from lawyer Steve Lerman to join King’s family at his funeral last weekend.
Lerman was King’s first attorney, the man who stood with him before television cameras as King tried to tamp post-verdict rage with his stuttered: “Can we ... can we all get along?”
Lerman helped broker Saturday’s memorial — which morphed, because of family dissension, into two separate funerals for Rodney Glen King:
King’s mother, Odessa, and some of his siblings insisted on something simple and low-key, consistent with their Jehovah’s Witness beliefs. That service lasted barely 20 minutes, with an open casket and brief Scripture readings. King’s mother left for a relative’s home in Altadena when it ended.
King’s daughter, Dene, envisioned a grand public tribute in a 1,200-seat pavilion, one that reflected the family’s affection for the man they called “Glen” and honored the role of “Rodney” in history. That funeral was preceded by a news conference and featured activist Al Sharpton.
The services were both dignified and emotional. But the hours between them were upbeat and down-home.
The gathering served as a family reunion of sorts for the dozens of Coles, Powers, Passmores, Baileys, Dennisons, Wades, Duncans, Watsons and Kings — folks reflecting the roots and branches of one man’s far-flung family tree.
Death tends to kindle our urge to connect. I was hugged more than once by strangers who figured I must be someone’s cousin, ex-wife or sister-in-law.
To them, King’s legacy was not muddy at all. He was a respectful son, a supportive brother, a proud and loving father who died too young.
“He was trying to be a better friend, a better father, a better son,” King’s cousin Charles Powers told the mourners at the public service. “He was trying to do what he should have done.
“He wished he could have done better.”
There is no way to know for certain, but Glen King may have been turning a corner, making peace with Rodney.
King had recently published a memoir and was traveling the country to promote it. That was a milestone for a man who had spent most of his life trying to hide the fact that he’d never learned to read; he was dyslexic.
“He was so proud” of his book, daughter Dene told the crowd. “And I was so proud of him.”
She publicly thanked Dr. Drew Pinsky, who counseled King on his show “Celebrity Rehab” four years ago and stayed in touch with him.
After her father’s dozens of stints in rehab programs, Pinksy’s seemed to take, she said. “He came back from there a different person.” He talked to his daughters more, he stayed in touch with his family. Something had changed in him, Dene said, that allowed them to believe that this time would be different.
King’s failures had never been a secret. He struggled with addiction, had brushes with the law, couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble.
“But I’ve never been ashamed of my father,” Dene said from the stage at his funeral. “I don’t care what the media said. I’ve never been ashamed of you.”
Then we watched a video montage of family photos on the screen behind his casket — photos that wouldn’t mean much to a stranger: high school graduations, family barbecues, a young man cuddling a baby girl, a grinning guy finishing off a pizza surrounded by a bunch of empty Coronas.
His family was saying goodbye to Glen; the rest of us had come to send off Rodney.
I said goodbye at his open casket. His face was frozen in a serious mien, his hands crossed at his waist with authority.
There was Rodney, looking every bit the statesman we always thought we needed him to be.