Few news story characters stay with us for 10 years the way Cecil Leading Horse has. Fewer still have left such a legacy.
We didn’t find Cecil in 2001 and decide to write about him. Cecil found us.
Our cops reporter, Stefano Esposito, was on his way home from work on a cold winter night when he stopped and ran into a store in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood. It was pouring rain. As a drunk stumbled by outside, the clerk told Esposito firefighters claimed the man had cost more than $1 million in emergency runs and hospital stays.
Esposito ran back out to his car, only to find the same drunk – Cecil – passed out on the ground with his head behind Esposito’s rear wheel.
Try as he might, the reporter couldn’t get Cecil to move. Eventually, Esposito reached out with a dollar, which Cecil grabbed, then slumped back down behind the wheel.
After more coaxing and begging, Esposito sought the help of a passerby. Together, they moved Cecil out of the way. But his story stayed with Esposito.
Teamed with now-retired photographer Russ Carmack, Esposito spent a month on the streets of Tacoma documenting Cecil’s life and adding up how much he had cost taxpayers. The TNT pair met Cecil’s colorful homeless friends. They listened to his wild war stories about Vietnam that never checked out. They stayed with him after he downed his eighth or ninth bottle of Wild Irish Rose and passed out for the night.
I reread that story last week. It offered a raw but compassionate look at the life of a troubled man. A number of Carmack’s photographs appear with today’s story as a reminder of how far Cecil has come. (We’ve posted the 2001 package at thenews tribune.com.)
Over the years, newsroom staffers reported the occasional Cecil sighting. With the hard life he was living, we didn’t figure it would be long before we’d need to write an obituary about the infamous fellow.
Ten years passed.
A few months ago, Kathleen Merryman came with news that not only was Cecil alive, he was sober. We were incredulous. She checked it out. It was true. Even more amazing was the trail of good that came in part from his god-awful story.
After the original story, Merryman found, Cecil became a poster child for community advocates working to clean up Tacoma’s streets and help chronic inebriates and homeless people who couldn’t help themselves. One advocate held up the newspaper story as he pressed for support.
Early in the decade, Tacoma won approval for the state’s first Alcohol Impact Area. It banned from the Hilltop the sale of cheap, high-octane wine that was so accessible and so toxic for people like Cecil. Based on its success, the city won approval for another AIA in 2008.
In 2004, a group of nonprofits developed transitional housing for people like Cecil, who lives there now, where they can receive services even before they are sober.
Organizers of The Sobering Center of Tacoma, which opened in 2005, say it was designed for Cecil. It offers a place to dry out that’s safer than the streets and cheaper than a hospital. And in 2007, Tacoma banned panhandling, in part to keep dollars out of the hands of homeless addicts.
Several years ago, Esposito left the TNT for a job at The Chicago Sun-Times. I called last week to tell him of the progress made in Tacoma.
“If Cecil has had an effect in that way, I think that’s great,” Esposito said. “It’s hard not to have some affection for this guy, as dreadful as his life was, with his stories and all. He was a sweet guy.”
Esposito was not shocked to learn of Cecil’s years-long sobriety or that he was even leading Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“It doesn’t surprise me in the least,” Esposito said. “That guy’s been defying the odds all of his life. I wouldn’t be surprised if he got a pilot’s license. I think it’s wonderful.”
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434