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Last week, in local television and newspaper reports, Gary Mays was hailed as a hero. To folks who know him or his life story, that’s not news.

In the segregated Washington of the early ’50s, Mays was a schoolboy legend, though only those on the black side of town were aware of his exploits.

When he was 5 years old, Mays lost his left arm to an accidental shotgun blast. He nevertheless went on to become one of the most celebrated all-around athletes of his generation. Those of a certain age and shade remember Mays as the “One-Armed Bandit” who shut down Elgin Baylor, the greatest basketball player in D.C.’s storied hoops history, while captaining the Armstrong Tech team over Baylor’s undefeated and allegedly unbeatable Spingarn squad in the 1954 Metro City Series Tournament, the last city championship for “colored” high schools (Cheap Seats, “The Bandit and the Rabbit,” 4/13/01). Mays, then a senior, also played catcher on the Armstrong baseball team and was regarded as the best player in town. He hit .375 and didn’t allow a stolen base all year. But Mays never got to play in the annual All-High, All Prep Game, the all-star game held at the Washington Senators’ home park, Griffith Stadium. In the pre-Brown vs. Board of Education days, only white boys were invited.

These days, his everyday work routine is about as eye-opening as his athletic exploits once were. Mays, now 67, runs a one-man contracting business. This week, he finished work on his firm’s first government contract, a post-Sept. 11 pact he got from the Department of Defense to install security systems on underground passageways around the Pentagon and the Naval Annex in Arlington. For the past several months, Mays has used the same arm that frustrated Baylor and base runners some 48 years ago to lift manhole covers, some of which weigh more than 200 pounds.

“I just wanted to get my foot in the door with a contract,” he says. “I wanted to show people I can do it.”

All Mays did to get attention last week was save a kid’s life. Seven-year-old Joshua Delaney had walked away from recess at Skyline Elementary School in Suitland on Monday morning. Joshua suffers from a severe form of autism classified as PDD—NOS (Pervasive Developmental Disorder—Not Otherwise Specified) and is supposed to receive one-on-one care from school staff at all times on the advice of doctors. But, for reasons that remain unclear, nobody at Skyline noticed that he was missing for an hour.

At the time, Mays was in his car on an errand for his business. He spotted the youngster walking alone. Along the Beltway.

“I was driving with my wife to pick up some stuff for work, and I thought I saw this small child walking along the shoulder up ahead,” says Mays, now a Fort Washington resident. “I couldn’t believe it, but as I got closer, it sure enough was a child. A clean-scrubbed little boy. And he wasn’t on a ramp or off the road. He was on the Beltway, walking along the white line. I was shocked. So I just did what anybody would do: I pulled over to see if he was all right.”

Mays’ assertion that anybody else would have pulled over along the infamous Beltway might make sense in a kinder, gentler world.

But on this day, literally hundreds of cars had passed Joshua near the Suitland exit of the Inner Loop without stopping. One other vehicle, a white government van, pulled over at the same time as Mays. That’s it. While Mays got out of his car and ran toward the boy, the man driving the van called police on a cell phone and left the scene shortly thereafter. Mays lured the boy away from the roadway and asked his name. The youngster said his name was Joshua, but his difficulty in communicating verbally was clear to Mays. Mays handed him a cell phone and asked him to call home. The number Joshua punched in was busy, so Mays just tried to keep things calm while waiting for the police to show up.

“I was so afraid that I’d scare him and he’d walk into the road,” says Mays, breaking into tears at the thought. “I just kept looking at him, this beautiful little boy, and thinking how easily he could have been run over and killed, and thinking of all the missing children in the world who never get found, and getting mad as hell at everybody who had driven by him before me. Where were they going? What was so important in all their lives that they would just drive by this little boy? When the police got there, I just became an absolute mess, just crying like a baby. And I’m still torn up by the whole thing.”

After a state police officer took Joshua to the Forestville precinct, Mays had an operator break into the phone line the child had dialed. Until that point, Joshua’s parents, who live on Andrews Air Force Base, weren’t even aware that their youngster was missing.

“Gary Mays told me Joshua was all right and then told me what happened,” says Martina Delaney, Joshua’s mother. “Obviously, now we’re very upset that something like this could happen. But we’re so lucky for this man, this Gary Mays. Nobody would stop for Joshua. But Gary Mays stopped. There is no way we can thank him, but we love him.”

The Delaneys have since pulled their son out of Skyline Elementary. Police determined that Joshua had walked more than a mile from school before being found. Though the boy hasn’t disclosed where he was going or why, his mother thinks his fascination with street signs led him to the Beltway stroll.

Mays, meanwhile, has another mission.

“I really want to find out who was driving that government van,” he says. “That guy deserves recognition.” —Dave McKenna