It’s the place where people have come to remember an astronaut, a civil rights activist and a world leader.
It’s where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last Sunday sermon and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama spoke.
It’s where U.S. presidents have mourned and been mourned.
Washington National Cathedral has long served as the site of nationally significant moments involving people with rare résumés, which make what happened there one night this week a testament to the life that Edward Magoba created.
His was not a notable name. He did not graduate from college or hold a position of power. On his employer’s website, he is listed as a “custodian/bus driver.”
But if you sat in Washington National Cathedral on Monday night, you would have seen it fill with people who came for his memorial service and who saw the stately setting as a fitting place for it. You would have heard people describe a man who was rare in his kindness and who spent most of his life working in or near the iconic building.
You would have seen the grief on the faces of teenagers and women he literally cheered on.
Magoba was in high school when he first started cleaning Washington National Cathedral, and at 18, he took a job at the nearby all-girls National Cathedral School. He worked there for 47 years, until his death on Aug. 4.
“As he often mentioned when he was reminiscing, Edward was terrified of the girls at first, afraid to say much or give a fist-bump or a high-five, or whatever the equivalent was back at that time,” Becky Rivera told the crowd at his service. She first met Magoba when her daughter attended the school and later worked with him. “But over time, and as many of you in this cathedral experienced firsthand, he became your biggest fan and your guardian angel.”
She described how he drove students on the bus to their athletic competitions and then stood on the sidelines, cheering loudly for them. You can do it, girls! And how sometimes, if opposing teams didn’t have many fans, he took on that role, too.
“Mr. Magoba was the most selfless and giving individual many of us have ever known,” Rivera said. “Edward was unique in his ability to absorb and reflect the happiness around him, no matter his own circumstances, and that continued until the very end.”
Magoba, who was married and had a stepson, died at the age of 65, after a five-year battle with prostate cancer. Before his death, he received thousands of letters from former and current students, their parents and his co-workers.
Heather Dent, the school’s athletic director, read many of those letters to him. She told those gathered at the service that their words made a difference in his life. She also confessed that she hadn’t written him a letter before sharing what hers would have said.
“Dear Ed, I miss you,” she said. “I want you to know that I carry you with me each day, and I promise to pass on your legacy of kindness and love. I want you to know that kindness counted, and you made a difference in people’s lives, especially mine. You knew all of us. When we felt no one saw us, you called us by name and shared in our stories by saying hello and asking how we were doing.”
“I never told you in person,” she continued. “But I believe you are and will be the best teacher that National Cathedral School will ever have. You helped so many generations of women feel seen, feel supported and feel loved.”
After his death, she slipped his ID badge behind hers and now carries both with her every day. She shared that detail with me when we spoke the day after the service about how Magoba came to loom so large in the lives of so many people who have passed through the school in the past four decades.
For the service, alumni came from near and far, and the event was streamed live on YouTube for those who couldn’t make it. Online, people have left comments about him that read, “I love him so much” and “Ed, you are amongst my favorite memories of NCS.”
The field hockey team recently put an image of a ribbon wrapped around his name on their hockey sticks. Before that, the rowing team put his name on the side of a boat. Dent said she expects other teams will also create tributes to him as their seasons begin and “they start to feel the emptiness” of his absence.
The closeness Magoba achieved with students is striking, even without knowing much about him. It’s even more so when you consider how distant his life started from many of theirs.
He spent his early childhood in Uganda. His family moved to the District because of his father’s job as an educational attache for the Ugandan government. But when it came time for the family to return, Edward did not join his parents and siblings.
Maria Walker recalled how his father, Joseph Magoba, asked her late husband, Bishop John T. Walker, if his son could stay with them until he finished high school. At the time, the couple had a 2-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son.
“He just sort of became a part of our family,” Walker said. Even as a teenager, she recalled, he was “gentle” and “sweet” and, despite the distance between him and his relatives, he never sulked about his situation.
National Cathedral School honors beloved custodian
“I don’t know if there’s another person on Earth who was like Edward,” she said. “Most people complain about this and complain about that, or ask ‘Why did this happen to me?’ But Edward did not. He was just resilient and able to navigate life.”
While attending Wilson High School, he worked at a Hot Shoppe restaurant, but he wasn’t happy and the hours ran too late, she said. So, he started working at Washington National Cathedral, doing custodial work after school. Then, he saw that the girls school had an opening and applied for it.
“He loved working with the kids,” she said. “I think he saw that as his calling.”
John Magoba, who now lives in Maryland, said when his older brother first decided to stay in the District, he missed him. At the same time, he knew his brother was thinking about him because every once in a while, a package would arrive containing money or clothes.
He recalled how when his brother first came as an adult to visit Uganda, he handed out $100 bills, until a cousin told him he shouldn’t do that. The next time he visited, he squeezed people’s hands and discreetly left money in their palms.
At the school, people swapped similar stories about his generosity. Once, he saw a woman on the bus without a coat and gave her money to buy one. Another time, he went to McDonald’s with a co-worker and before they could walk in the door, he gave his meal money to someone outside.
“Edward comes from a long line of very giving people,” John Magoba told the crowd at Washington National Cathedral. He mentioned their grandfather, their father and Bishop Walker. “So he had a lot of teachers that told him humility is what the world is all about. My father gave us three things to live by that you can do in your life: You can fade away, and nobody knows you existed. You can do something so bad that you’re not forgotten. Or you can do something good, and you will always be remembered. And I know that my brother will always be remembered.”
His family held an earlier funeral that packed a church in Silver Spring. But the significance of seeing his brother honored at Washington National Cathedral was not lost on John Magoba. He was given the seat normally reserved for presidents.
“I was sitting where presidents have sat,” he marveled after the service. He ticked off the names Obama, Trump, Bush. “It makes me feel like my brother is right up there.”
This article was written By Theresa Vargas