4/23/1920 – 3/9/2020
By Rev. Brian Hamilton
On the morning of March 9, Bessie Lee “Blossom” Athey passed away just short of her 100th birthday, and the Southwest Community lost one of its great citizens. Blossom was an extraordinarily community-minded person who participated in Southwest organizations for the 50 years she lived in the neighborhood.
Born in Darnestown, Md., Blossom was raised in a loving farming family that cultivated a sense of care and generosity in her, which remained strong throughout her life. According to Blossom, her family members were all exceptionally musical and relished the times when they gathered in the family living room to play music together. No one enjoyed it more than her father, who played no instruments nor could carry a tune but belted it out anyway. For herself, Blossom was an accomplished trumpet player.
Blossom graduated from Gaithersburg High School at the age 16, but returned to complete a secretarial program. She took evening music courses at Washington College of Music and, later, business and liberal arts courses at GW. She held secretarial positions at National Geographic, the USDA, and then moved toward legal secretarial work with Prettyman Law Firm.
In 1949, she began a 50-year career with Covington & Burling, where she became a legal aid specialist, assisting attorneys with civil legal aid and court-appointed criminal cases, anti-poverty class actions, and legal issues faced by low-income clients.
Fifteen years later, in 1964, Blossom was “loaned” to the United Planning Organization. There she helped organize legal service programs around DC by conducting workshops for attorneys and staff, and setting up neighborhood law offices to train secretarial and other staff. In 1966, she was recruited by OEO Legal Services and Sargent Shriver to help establish legal aid services on Navajo Reservations in several Western states. She was recruited by the D.C. Bar to assist in organizing the initial Lawyers Training and Participation Program (now the D.C. Bar’s Legal Information Helpline). She was also recruited to be a member of legal teams, sponsored by the Citizens Ambassador Program, to visit and exchange experiences and ideas with counterparts in the Soviet Union (1990), China (1991), and Israel (1994).
Blossom has been a life-long advocate for children. Using her musical talents, she organized a youth ensemble in the 1960’s, the Marching Tigers, as a way to work with kids, offer alternatives to street life, support parents, and strengthen families. A dedicated leader at Westminster Presbyterian Church, she helped organize Friday night film events and mentored youth through a range of activities designed to foster curiosity and creativity. She retired from her 50 years with Covington but continued to support their outreach in the community by facilitating Family Night events at Cardozo High School. Around the same time, she received the distinguished Servant of Justice award for her dedication to legal aid, which is so essential in supporting low-income families and individuals.
Blossom Athey will always be remembered as a “ball of energy.” Had she lived to April 23, she would have celebrated her 100th birthday, a day she joyfully claimed was shared with William Shakespeare. She had a unique ability to get people together and address needs that should not be ignored. Her heart was big and her willingness to reach out to the vulnerable, the last and the least, inspired many others to become more engaged.
Blossom was part of the glue that keeps the Southwest community together. Her presence will be missed but her legacy and her spirit will survive forever.
Memorial Services will be held at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 400 I St., SW at a future date to be announced, as public health concerns permit.