By David Zurawik
The Baltimore Sun
9:15 AM EST, January 25, 2013
It was standing room only Thursday as family, friends and admirers of Robert Francell Chew said goodbye with a spirited and moving celebration of life ceremony for the actor known as Proposition Joe.
More than 100 persons crowded into the chapel at the Calvin B. Scruggs Funeral Home in east Baltimore on a cold, snow-dusted morning.
They ranged from other Baltimore actors who had won featured roles in HBO's "The Wire," like Felicia "Snoop" Pearson, to Raymond Parker, the high school music teacher who rook Chew under his wing at Patterson High, taught him to sing Italian opera and helped him get an audition that led to a four-year scholarship at Morgan State University.
"Standing room only, and he meant something to everyone in that room," said Pat Moran, who worked closely with Chew as casting director on the David Simon drama.
"He touched them with his talent, his humility and his graciousness. That's what he was -- a gracious, gracious man," Moran said after the ceremony.
The celebration of life service was filled Thursday with the remembrances of those whom Mr. Chew had touched.
As a gospel piano sounded "One Day at a Time," the service began with the Chew family closing the coffin on the remains of the 52-year-old actor who died Jan. 17 of heart failure. As the song continued, more and more of those in the room softly sang along.
Several of the most powerful moments were provided by former and current students whom Mr. Chew taught and mentored at Baltimore's Arena Players Youtheatre.
Student after student triggered knowing smiles and laughter with recollections at the podium of getting a "slam" from Mr. Chew. And all talked about how the harsh critique from this demanding teacher only made them work harder to try and win his approval and praise.
"What do you say to a man who gave you everything?" actor and former student Robert Lee Hardy asked at the start of a stirring monologue about Mr. Chew.
"How can I say thank you for all the things you have done for me?" a female student asked in song as she stood alongside the coffin.
And her soaring voice brought the room to its feet by the time she finished her song.
There were lighter moments as well. One high school friend reminisced about Mr. Chew's favorite sandwich (balogna, cheese, jelly and mayonnaise), followed by a fellow member of the musical group, Sound Demention, who described Mr. Chew as "the best tenor singer on the whole East Coast." And then he brought the room to its feet with his song.
Raymond Parker, a retired City of Baltimore teacher, provided one of the most revealing and inspirational moments of the service, as he recounted teaching a teenage Robert Chew not only American musical theater, like "Chorus Line" and "No, No Nanette," but also 17th-century Italian art songs, like the aria "Come raggio di sol," by Antonio Caldera.
Parker recounted how he took the high school senior to Morgan State University to sing the song for Nathan Carter, the famed choir director, who awarded the student a four-year scholarship.
"He was precocious and he was brilliant," Parker said. "He was my prize-winning student."
And that student went on to not only help create one of the most unforgettable characters in the history of American television, but also mentor and teach more than a generation of Baltimore students as well.
I don't know if Mr. Chew had flights of angels singing him to his rest, as Horatio wished for Hamlet. But he had some wonderful singers, fellow actors, teachers and former students voicing their love and admiration for him Thursday at the Calvin B. Scruggs Funeral Home in east Baltimore.
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