Sunday, October 27, 2019

Remembering mystery man Rags

Oct , 2019

Dale Huffman, 
Contributing Writer

“That Rags was quite the charac-ter,” said Bernice Law, a North Dayton woman I was having a conversation with recently. “He is the only recluse I ever met in the Miami Valley who became famous and didn’t like it one bit.”

It’s an unusual story and Law pointed out that this year marks the 39th anniversary of the mystery man’s death.

The day he died hardly anyone in the Dayton area actually knew his real name.

He was a reluctant folk character of sorts. Few will argue that he was one of the most visible, yet mysterious street characters of our generation.

Rags lived in Dayton for approximately 10 years, and he collapsed, fell to the sidewalk outside an East Third Street restaurant downtown on May 5, 1980, and died the same day in a local hospital.

Sandy Kimmey, who then was a waitress downtown, called the ambulance. I checked some stories in our archives and found Sandy’s words: “Rags was poor and ragged. But there is no sin in that. Don’t say anything bad about the poor soul. He was a human being, you know.”

For years there were humorous stories and rumors about the man who had deep soulful eyes framed by scraggly unkempt hair. He always wore the same clothes and pieces of soiled cloth ripped into rags were wrapped around his feet. Even in the depths of winter.

One rumor, never confirmed, but passed around a lot, was that one day a Cincinnati policeman brought him to Dayton in a police cruiser and dropped him off.

He did not talk much about himself. I approached him one day as he sat on a bench outside the public library downtown. Our eyes met, and there was a long period of eye contact without conversation.

Finally I broke the ice. “They say all kinds of things about you. People are genuinely interested in you. They want to know about you.”

His only response was, “No one needs to know of me.”

From time to time, some folks reported that he did speak of sports teams, the Reds, and said he was glib and discussed politics and the environment. He spent many hours in the library reading.

Rags slept in doorways, in alleys, under bridges, but never in homeless shelters. On the night of the big blizzard of ’78, a clerk at the Reid Hotel, a low-price place on East Fifth Street that now is gone, said Rags paid for a room there with a new $20 bill. The clerk said, “Some nice lady would meet him and give him handouts from time to time.”

The stories continued even after his death. Dayton police officer Tom Sammon, with the help of the FBI, determined his name to be Elias Joseph Barauskas, and said he was born in Waterbury, Conn.

A brother was located and said he left a hospital, disappeared, and was never heard from until after his death.

Thanks to donations from citizens, there was an elaborate and packed funeral for Mr. Barauskas.

The CBS news program called “Sunday Morning” came to Dayton to tape a feature on the man and the funeral.

Hundreds sent letters and poems and some art work of Rags to the Dayton Daily News.

One 13-year-old boy, Jamie Porter of Smith Junior High, wrote that he would miss Rags.

“Why can’t they put some kind of plaque in front of the library?” Jamie asked. “Seems like we should do something to remember Rags.”

It’s quite a tribute to the man that these years later, so many people still recall the mystery man with rags wrapped around his feet.

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