Washingtonians Of The Year 2001
For 30 years, The Washingtonian has honored people who make Washington a better place— and each year, those who make a difference inspire others throughout the area. Here are2002’s Washingtonians of the Year.
IN 1972, THE WASHINGTONIAN NAMED THE FIRST WASHINGTONIANS OF THE YEAR. THE purpose was to recognize the men and women who have done the most to improve the quality of life here and to encourage others to do good things for our community.
That first group of ten included Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who fought to preserve the C&O Canal as a park, and a 24-year-old dynamo named Peggy Cooper whose advocacy for the arts helped create the Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
On the 30th anniversary of the awards, we have come full circle: This year we honor mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, who was introduced to opera as a student at Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
We've honored more than 500 Washingtonians of the Year. Most of the winners aren't household names. They are ordinary people with extraordinary heart.
Many of the winners didn't rest on their laurels. The awards spurred them to greater service. Both Julie Kennedy (1997), whose DC Scores uses soccer to motivate kids to read, and Billy Shore (1993), creator of Share Our Strength to combat hunger, have taken their programs nationwide. Florence Starzynski (1994), honored as an Arlington police officer, retired from the force to become a teacher in DC.
We honored Father John Adams of So Others Might Eat in 1985 for his work to feed the hungry and house the homeless. Public attention sometimes wavers on such issues, but Adams never has. SOME still serves 800 to 1,000 meals a day to the capital's homeless people.
Children's advocate Marian Wright Edelman (1979) is still a strong and steady voice for children without the power to ask for help for themselves. Sarah and Jim Brady (1982) continue to campaign against gun violence and inspire others with their courage and perseverance.
The 2001 Washingtonians of the Year were chosen from hundreds of letters, calls, and e-mails about often-unsung heroes.
They make us proud to be Washingtonians.
"The best way I can help is remaining committed to those organizations."
LIKE MANY HIGH-PROFILE WASHINGTONIANS, Kathleen Matthews could live well just from off-the-job gigs like making speeches. But the Channel 7 anchor would rather leverage those opportunities for those who aren't living as well.
Take the time she hosted a Smithsonian event partly backed by Chrysler. Rather than accept a fee, she had the auto company give a minivan to a Catholic Charities housing program.
Or her idea for Suited for Change, which provides interview clothes to women leaving welfare for work: Why not tap a new market of high-quality goods and drum up publicity, too? Washington's female news anchors were soon telling a crowd where they'd worn their donated suits—and raising $6,000 in the process.
Ask about Matthews at the organizations to which she lends her time and talent and you'll hear a lot of the same praise. Reliable. Smart. Thoughtful. Energetic. "Many people called on to do charity work get tired of it. Kathy always comes through," says Elayne Bennett of the Best Friends Foundation. Adds Barbara Patterson of the Black Student Fund, "You don't have to explain the issues. She knows them."
She also knows news, which helps Matthews advise groups on getting attention. And she knows hundreds of people and organizations, helping to recruit board members and donors.
"I always think, what can I contribute to have the biggest impact?" she says. Visibility, savvy, and drive are just the beginning.
She and husband Chris had no fundraising experience when they agreed to chair part of Catholic Charities' capital campaign, and she took "a deep breath" upon asking for that first $10,000 gift. But asking becomes easier when the answer is yes. "Sometimes you feel like you can't keep going to the well, but people here are so generous," she says.
Many people think the same of Kathleen Matthews. "She makes people want to do things," says Karina Halvorsen of Suited for Change. "She asks with such grace and diplomacy and sincerity that you just can't refuse."
Even off-screen, Kathleen Matthews has enthusiastic fans. This one's at a shelter in Alexandria.
"I make them see they can do far more than they think they can."
DOUGLAS TYSON HAD NEVER HEARD OF "IT'S ACAdemic" before he started teaching in 1990. A product of Dartmouth and Yale, he'd never even set foot in a public school before interviewing for a DC teaching position. He got the job—and was asked to coach a flailing "It's Academic" team with no training, no materials, and no budget.
But this wasn't any school. It was Benjamin Banneker Model Academic High, the District's bid for the big time. And Tyson wasn't just any teacher. "Those Banneker students got creamed in their first tournament," says Sue Ikenberry, "It's Academic" coach at Georgetown Day School. "He would have them back the next week and the next week and the next—and eventually, they stopped getting creamed."
They did better than that. In 1996, the Banneker team set a record for game points scored on WRC-TV's "It's Academic" broadcast. This year, Tyson's combined Banneker-GDS team, representing the District, beat 40 squads from around the country to win the Panasonic Academic Challenge and $17,500 in scholarship money.
Besting the best is a thrill, but students gain more than pride. " 'It's Academic' broadens minority students," says Tyson, who regularly drills literature, politics, and geography into kids eligible for free lunches. "As they learn things, they become more sophisticated in their thinking. They start making the connections, which helps their coursework and their confidence."
The 22 team members practice nine hours a week; all-day tournaments are held nearly every Saturday as far away as New Jersey and North Carolina. Entry fees, practice materials, food, lodging, and transportation cost about $20,000 a year. Unlike many rivals, DC public schools don't have an "It's Academic" budget—so Tyson has hit up every company and foundation he could find.
And that's on his own time. Tyson puts about 70 hours a month into "It's Academic," not counting preparing, renting vans, buying Amtrak tickets, and other odd duties. "I did the math once," he says. "I figured the coach's stipend comes to about 18 cents an hour."
At the back of his classroom is what's called "Tyson's shrine," filled with his own trophies and other tributes. Outstanding Teacher of the Year. Outstanding Science Educator. Awards from Tandy, Sallie Mae, GTE. Fellowships from the American Society for Cell Biology, the Department of Energy, NIH, and more.
"When students go back there for water," he explains, "they see that I'm trying to push myself too, I'm filling out applications, I'm studying. When I tell them I want them to push themselves and expand themselves, to do that effectively, I need to show that I do the same thing."
What teacher put Banneker High School on the "It's Academic" map? Douglas Tyson.
JANE HOLMES DIXON
"This city can be a beacon for a very troubled and hurried world.. We can find ways to live together wiith honesty and respect."
IN THE WAKE OF SEPTEMBER 11, THE RIGHT REV-erend Jane Holmes Dixon, Episcopal bishop of Washington pro tempore, has been sharing pulpits and podiums with rabbis, imams, priests, and other religious leaders. The characters change, but the message is always the same: tolerance and togetherness.
That message has been Jane Dixon's mission since she was ordained as a priest in 1982. One of her first assignments was as associate rector of DC's St. Alban's Church. She worked so hard to bring people of different faiths together that when she was assigned to a church in Laurel, Washington Hebrew Congregation hosted a farewell party for her.
Jane Dixon is also president of the Interfaith Alliance, which promotes religious cooperation and social justice. She has been at the forefront of the fight for fair housing and fair treatment of those on welfare.
"My ministry has been a striving for justice," Dixon says, pointing to a quotation from Micah in her office." 'Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.' We tend to do a lot of loving justice and doing mercy, and that's not what the scripture says."
When you see Dixon confidently conducting a service at the National Cathedral, it is hard to imagine that 25 years ago she was a hesitant housewife wondering what to do with her life.
Dixon taught school in the early 1960s, then stayed home to raise her children. She was exploring her choices when the first women were ordained as Episcopal priests in 1974.
At first, she promoted the priesthood for her son, not herself. A friend and mentor, Verna Dozier, confronted Dixon about it. "She said, 'If you want to be an Episcopal priest, you be one, but leave that boy alone,' " Dixon recalls. "My son adores her to this day."
Dixon loves what she calls "the only job where women dress like men who dress like women." She now realizes that she has become a role model for young girls who see the priesthood as a possible vocation.
"Male and female, God created us. We have to do our lot in representing God's work," Dixon says. There are churches now, she says, where children have seen only a female pastor or rector. "I've heard children ask their parents, 'Can men do that too?' "
Bishop Jane Dixon in her "working clothes" at the National Cathedral.
"They say that you should 'give 'til it hurts.' I say 'Give'til it feels good.' The more I give, the better I feel."
TED LEONSIS DESCRIBES HIMSELF AS A "START-up junkie." Whether he's at his day job at America Online or moonlighting as owner of the Washington Capitals, Leonsis is at full throttle, using all of his energy, intelligence, and moxie to get things going.
Leonsis looks at charities as start-ups, too. A few years ago, he agreed to help a fledgling organization called Hoop Dreams, a mentoring and scholarship program for inner-city kids. He provided "venture capital" for the group and became a mentor to Michael Hendrickson, a young man from Southeast DC.
Hendrickson had two strikes against him: He grew up without a father, and several of his brothers were in jail. But Hendrickson wanted to go to college—he had his heart set on Hampton University in Virginia.
Leonsis hired Hendrickson as an intern with the Caps and helped him apply to college. The two started e-mailing each other, having conversations about everything from sports to sex to success.
Hendrickson learned that he had been wait-listed at Hampton the day Abe Pollin and Ted Leonsis announced that Michael Jordan was coming to DC. Despite the media frenzy, Leonsis called Hampton's admissions director that night.
"I'm Michael's mentor," Leonsis said. "This young man is going to be a star. I'm not getting off the phone until he gets in." Hendrickson agreed to take remedial courses that summer, and he is now a student at Hampton.
Leonsis has the same hands-on involvement with Best Buddies, a program started by Anthony Shriver to link college students to young people with mental retardation. Leonsis started out as a donor and board member, then came up with the idea of using the Internet as a link between people.
He was the first volunteer for E-Buddies, according to Lisa Derx, the program's director. Leonsis and his buddy instant-message each other several times a day. "His heart is totally into it," Derx says.
Leonsis won't rest until there are a million pairs of E-Buddies and many more business leaders are helping kids like Michael Hendrickson get to college.
Eighteen months ago, Leonsis and his wife, Lynn, started a family foundation. But he's unlikely to let the foundation do his good works for him. He says, "Touching people is more important than writing checks."
Ted Leonsis at a Caps game with kids from the Hoop Dreams program.
"It was an easy choice to devote my life to this."
"AMANDA" WAS RAISED TO MARRY WELL, AND SHE did: Her husband makes $1 million a year. At home, though, the alcoholic lawyer has chased his wife with a knife, pushed and punched her, ripped out her hair, and once hung a noose in their stairwell. She's filedfor civil protective orders but always withdrawn them under pressure.
"Zoe" was ugly, stupid, and worthless—according to her husband. Controlling who she saw and where she went, he once broke her little finger, then refused her medical treatment so the bones would set at an angle. His vicious beatings would have left the Nigerian mother of four unable to work—if she'd had any skills.
Both Zoe and Amanda found their way to Women Empowered Against Violence, a DC nonprofit offering legal aid, intervention, and counseling. Like domestic violence, WEAVE doesn't discriminate. "The problem affects every race, age, religion, and economic group," says cofounder Lydia Watts.
Moved by a friend's disclosure of her father's physical and sexual abuse, Watts worked during and after college for women's crisis centers. Most hotline calls concerned domestic violence, and many were legal questions. So Watts applied to American University's law school. She and a classmate found that no DC organization coordinated legal or support services for victims. So, in 1997, they started one.
WEAVE now has connections to advocacy groups, shelters, police, government, counseling centers, and law firms. It educates judges, doctors, and religious groups. WEAVE's holistic approach guides 2,100 women a year through varied needs and concerns: Where do I get a protective order? How can I find daycare or affordable housing? What if he has all our money? How can I keep custody of our children? He said he'll kill me if I leave—what now?
Law-school friends had other questions: No salary for two years? With all that debt? "But I incurred that debt for a purpose," Watts says. "All the clinics, the internships—it just made sense to start an organization that would be the culmination of all that experience."
When Zoe gathered enough courage and support to divorce her husband and return to school, she became a licensed practical nurse making $18,000. Her salary has since doubled, and the kids are doing well. Amanda, though, hasn't managed to break away; she hopes court-ordered counseling will change her husband's ways.
"Our door is always open, no matter what your decision," Watts says. "You can always come back to WEAVE."
A high-school friend inspired Lydia Watts to help women in theshadows of violence.
THE RESCUERS OF 9.11
"Firemen were coming out completely black. That's where I began to wrestle with fear." —ARMY CHAPLAIN ALVIN SYKES
ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, WE WATCHED WASH- ingtonians—firefighters, police officers, members of search-and-rescue teams, military personnel, and civilians—give new meaning to "courage under fire."
They entered the inferno that was the Pentagon, putting themselves in harm's way to help others.
Five of those heroes are pictured here. They represent hundreds more who went beyond the call of duty. They were joined by anonymous passersby who saw the fire and raced to help.
Lieutenant Commander David Tarantino, a Navy doctor, and Navy Captain David M. Thomas Jr. were in their Pentagon offices when the hijacked airliner hit the building. Tarantino and Thomas crawled through burning wreckage to free Jerry Henson, who was trapped in debris.
Robert Dubé, a member of Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue, was part of the reconnaissance team that went into the burning Pentagon, searching for rescue sites. For days after the crash, they buttressed the building to keep it from collapsing on victims and rescuers.
Arlington police officer John Ritter was off-duty when the plane hit. He went to work and immediately was dispatched to the Pentagon. Finding no ambulances to get the injured to hospitals, Ritter and fellow officers arranged volunteer brigades and cleared the way to transport the wounded.
Army Chaplain Alvin Sykes saw the fire through the window of his Crystal City office. He walked to the Pentagon and joined an emergency extraction team to search for survivors. Later, he and other chaplains formed a "chain of dignity" to say blessings over the dead and to pray with the searchers.
Arlington County firefighters raced to the Pentagon. For 16 hours, they burrowed through black smoke and burning debris, looking for victims and containing the fire.
Some Washington fire and rescue workers went to New York as volunteers in the search-and-rescue effort at the World Trade Center.
"We all gave some because some gave all," says Laytonsville volunteer firefighter Luke Hodgson.
Among the hundreds of men and women who helped others on September 11: Robert Dubé of the Fairfax County Urban Search and Rescue Team, Navy Captain David M. Thomas Jr., Navy Lieutenant David Tarantino, Arlington County Police Officer John Ritter, and Army Chaplain Alvin Sykes. They are standing at an impromptu memorial overlooking the Pentagon.
"When business invests in the community, it's good for the community and it's good for business."
THERE IS A BIG 40TH-BIRTHDAY CARD ON THEwall in Alex Orfinger's office. His friends did more than sign the card—they signed up to do something for the community in Orfinger's honor.
One friend promised to give 40 pints of blood. Another pledged to organize a family volunteer event. Others vowed to set up scholarships and community services.
The man who inspired these outpourings has come to symbolize the caring side of corporate Washington. Since he rode into town five years ago, Alex Orfinger has galvanized the business community to do more for the Washington area.
As publisher of Washington Business Journal, Orfinger had expected to become a part of the civic-minded business community as he had in Atlanta and Dallas. He soon found that the area business community was fragmented and corporate philanthropy was a "sometime thing."
Within a year, Orfinger had surveyed area businesses and prepared a community report card on corporate philanthropy. He then joined forces with the volunteer group Greater DC Cares to host the first Philanthropy Summit.
About 350 corporate and community leaders came to that first summit in 1998. Orfinger describes it as a cross between a Baptist revival meeting and a United Jewish Appeal dinner.
"We had people witnessing, talking about their positive experiences as volunteers. We didn't let people leave until they had pledged to do something," Orfinger says.
After four community surveys and summits, monetary contributions from the area's top 25 corporations have nearly doubled; volunteers and in-kind gifts are up as well. Orfinger is now working to increase community contributions from small businesses.
He practices what he preaches. He has just finished a term as chair of Greater DC Cares, and a few months from now he'll become president of the Cultural Alliance.
What makes Alex run? Enlightened self-interest, he'd say. "During the past five years, the bottom 20 percent of our city have lost ground. If we as a business community don't try to solve this problem, all of our businesses will suffer."
But scratch the businessman and the idealist emerges. "Washington is our home—we have to be engaged," Orfinger says. "Simple things can make a big difference in somebody's life."
Alex Orfinger volunteering at DC Central Kitchen.
"This can be an exemplary city, not just for the country but for the world."
SANDY DANG NEVER FELT MUCH SENSE OF COMmunity. Born in Hanoi, she and her ethnic-Chinese family were forced out of Vietnam when she was nine. Soon after, they spent a month at sea between China and Hong Kong only to end up in a series of refugee camps. With both parents working and resources thin, the child learned to cook and care for her smaller siblings.
Over three years in six camps, there was no formal schooling. Reaching America, a place they called "the golden mountain," the family landed first in Salt Lake City, then in Brooklyn. It still wasn't much of a home: "Go to school, come home, and close the door" against violence and drugs. The young immigrant cried at night out of fear and frustration.
So, years later, Dang recognized a pattern in the Asian refugees in DC's Park Road area—adult survivors of labor camps unable to speak English; children with no structure, forming street gangs to combat the dangers around them.
By the time of her arrival in the mid-1990s, Dang was able to do something for this next generation. With proficiency in English, Cantonese, and Vietnamese and a psychology degree from Duke University, she studied for a master's before working with children at what was then the Indo-Chinese Community Center in Columbia Heights.
With 350,000 Asian-Americans around Washington and no youth development center, Dang saw a need. When her federal grant ran out, she drew on hundreds of contacts—Asian, Hispanic, African-American, government, foundations—to create a new organization: Asian American Leadership, Empowerment, and Development, or LEAD.
Each afternoon, the nonprofit's rundown house fills with happy noise. Seventy children take part in after-school tutoring and art projects; 55 mentors go one-on-one in vocabulary building and educational play.
But LEAD isn't only about kids. There are intergenerational cultural events and family-support services. Parents are encouraged to join the PTA and lobby the school board. "They realize they can be the agents of change," Dang says. "They see it's important to reach out to other families, to be part of this city." Part of LEAD's "empowerment" involves working with other ethnic groups to improve neighborhood housing conditions.
Like the people it serves—1,000 children and families since 1995—Asian American LEAD is looking for a permanent home. "As refugees, we had no choice," Dang says. "Now, here, I want to build a strong community."
Sandy Dang leads a whole neighborhood toward a better life.
"I've based my life on a call rather than a career."
LAVERNE BREWSTER HAD REACHED THE LOW point: living with her children in a shelter, convinced she had no skills. "In employment, everything requires that you have an address," she says. "I was ready to kill myself —that's how bad I felt."
Then she heard about For Love of Children. Its Hope and a Home program got the family a house for $300 a month; not in a great neighborhood, but it provided the basics they craved. Other FLOC aid made the home energy-efficient and steered Brewster through a maze of DC services. "Once in Hope and a Home, I was able to make longer-term goals," she says. Now, with a bachelor's degree in hand, she's guided her last two children into college.
In 35 years as head of FLOC, Fred Taylor has seen a lot of happy endings. He built a part-time operation into a 130-staff, $10-million nonprofit serving 1,200 children a year. Hope and a Home is just one of ten programs that work little miracles for ignored and forgotten people.
Neighborhood tutoring, for example: After one year, students gain an average 1.6 years in school. Improving foster care: In the 1970s, the average stay was seven years; now it's four and falling. Stabilizing families: In an area where 40 percent of kids drop out by ninth grade, not one Hope and a Home child has done so in two decades.
Taylor himself dropped out for a time. A Baptist minister, he'd served two Virginia churches when, feeling restless, he arrived in DC seeking fulfillment. "In Genesis, the Lord said to Abraham, 'Go out into the land that I will show you,' " Taylor says. The land Taylor found needed a lot of help, and he set about to give it.
The first task was to close Junior Village, where the District warehoused some 900 abused and neglected kids. That took activists eight years. Later, he cofounded both the DC Consortium for Child Welfare (to unify adoption, foster-care, and family-service agencies) and the Columbia Heights/Shaw Family Support Collaborative.
Taylor's latest vision is "group intervention" of relatives and friends when an at-risk child is born. A teenage mother who hasn't finished high school probably can't—and shouldn't—raise that child alone, but is a cycle of foster care and pain the alternative? Taylor wants to bring people together, not break them up. FLOC bypasses the caseworker/manager and charges all those invested in the mother and child with their care and support.
The Washington Post has called FLOC "a singularly important organization" through which "the quality of life here has improved markedly." Fred Taylor keeps working his little miracles.
Fred Taylor helped renovate the nation's first black YMCA building, which now houses For Love of Children.
"These kids are teaching us the value of life."
FROM A DISTANCE, IT LOOKS LIKE ANY OTHER summer camp. Up close, you'll notice differences. A girl splashing in the pool is bald. A boy who'd spent months depressed and in pain is laughing. And a teen who usually propels a wheelchair is riding a horse.
The woman responsible for this scene is Bev Gough, whose sister—a Montgomery County physical-education teacher—died of a brain tumor in 1986. During Carol Jean's last days, Gough says, the two talked often of children they'd seen in NIH's oncology ward: "She felt sad that they hadn't really had a chance at life."
The Carol Jean Cancer Foundation is Gough's tribute to her sister's love of children. Its main program, Camp Friendship, allows 400 kids a year to feel "normal" for a while.
"What kind of camp would take a child who needed to be fed intravenously for several hours a day, who needed a daily shot, an exacting regimen of pills, a daily Broviac cleansing, a child who was in a wheelchair and needed to keep her foot above her heart?" a grateful parent wrote. "For one week in that surrealistic summer, Rita was able to act like the 11-year-old she was."
The foundation is the ultimate shoestring operation: It takes no government money, has no major benefactor. Gough, its only full-time staff, spent the early years visiting other camps, calling on doctors, and asking businesses to contribute everything from prefab cedar cabins to art supplies and meals. She raises some $300,000 a year and about the same in in-kind donations.
Why so much? So that families already in turmoil need pay only a $25 fee to enroll a child referred by a Washington-area hospital. Gough wants no child turned away.
Besides the usual nature trails, Camp Friendship offers special features. The tree fort is handicap-accessible. The camp store doubles as a sewing and crafts room for those lacking the energy to run around. And there are lots of "conversation spaces," such as gardens and gazebos. It was in one of these that a four-year-old gazed at his 15-year-old buddy for the week and said, "You know about chemo?"
Like ripples in a pond, Gough's work has reached beyond the camp's 43 acres. Parents gain a respite from the demands of caring for a sick child. Siblings reclaim some of Mom and Dad's attention; families connect through CJCF to share experiences. Some teen volunteers are inspired to choose careers helping children.
Having visited hundreds of sick kids and attended dozens of funerals, Gough knows the triumphs and limits of medical science. She's created a counterpoint—what one camper calls "a place to heal hearts, minds, and souls."
Carol Jean Eiserer's spirit gives life to sister Bev Gough's camp for kids.
"I encourage DC students. I see myself in many of them."
CALL HER THE VOICE OF AMERICA.
When she lifts up her voice, people hear freedom ring. Denyce Graves moved the nation when she sang "America the Beautiful" at the National Cathedral during the presidential prayer service to mourn those killed on September 11.
She has since performed American anthems on Oprah Winfrey's show, at a NASCAR rally, and at a NASA shuttle launch. She sang twice in Yankee Stadium during the World Series. The world-renowned mezzo-soprano has also issued two CDs of patriotic songs, with the profits going to relief efforts.
Singing "God Bless America" during a seventh-inning stretch would be a stretch for most opera divas. But not for Graves. She has been performing in unusual places because, she says, "music gave voice to what we were all feeling. I believe music has the power to heal."
Graves also believes in giving back to Washington, the city she calls her "nourishing ground." She grew up without a father on Galveston Street, Southwest, near the Blue Plains sewage-treatment plant and DC's auto-impoundment lot. She started singing in church but wasn't introduced to opera until she went to Duke Ellington School of the Arts.
Graves returns to Ellington to conduct master classes. "She teaches them, she reaches them, and she brings out wonderful things," says Edward Jackson, a voice teacher at the school who taught Denyce.
Graves donates opera tickets to Ellington students and to young people in other cities where she performs there.
She now lives in Leesburg, but her heart belongs to DC: "I feel I owe a lot to the city of Washington. There are so many fantastic teachers, mentors, and friends here who supported me and helped to shape the woman I'm becoming."
Now she's helping shape the lives of young people who dream of following in her footsteps.
When Graves comes to Ellington, the students are scared, but they get so excited, says Mary Jane Ayers, chair of vocal music there.
"The idea that she came from a broken home, that her family had problems, that she came here without knowing anything about her field—she teaches that there's a great big world out there and if you have talent, you can succeed."
Hometown girl Denyce Graves feels she owes a lot to Washington.
PHOTOGRAPH FOR THE WASHINGTONIAN BY ERICA BERGER/CORBIS OUTLINE
WILLIS THOMAS JR.
"These kids can succeed—if not in tennis, in life."
JOE AND MIKE RAGLAND WERE 13 AND 11, LIV-ing in one of Washington's worst neighborhoods and headed for trouble, when they met Willis Thomas. When he offered to teach them to play tennis, the boys didn't jump at the chance. In their neighborhood, tennis was for "sissies."
But Thomas stuck with them. "This man took about 15 of us under his wing, gave us rackets, balls, clothes, and hope," Joe Ragland says. "If it wasn't for Willis, I'd be either in reform school or still trying to be a great basketball player."
Instead the Ragland brothers got to college through tennis. Joe Ragland is now the teaching pro at a country club in the Phoenix area; Mike is the assistant pro.
The Raglands are just two of thousands of DC kids whose lives changed when they met Willis Thomas. Thomas was Arthur Ashe's doubles partner in junior tennis and gave up a career as a coach on the pro circuit—he coached Zina Garrison-Jackson, among others—to direct the Arthur Ashe Children's Program at the Washington Tennis Foundation.
But tennis isn't Thomas's only game. He uses it to teach life skills and to lure kids into academic achievement. Four days a week, the program picks kids up after school and brings them to the tennis center at Carter Barron, where they spend 90 minutes on homework before picking up a tennis racket. Older kids get college preparation, and the group goes on college tours.
Many of the kids are from single-parent households, Thomas says. They have never had consistent attention or quiet places to study. The kids also crave discipline. "I'm hard on them. But if I don't get on their case, they say, 'Willis, you haven't yelled at me lately. Do you know I'm still here?' "
Willis Thomas started playing tennis at age four—taught by his father, Willis Thomas Sr., who still officiates at tournaments. Does the younger Thomas miss his own tournament days?
Not for a minute. "You see these kids grow up, and you get these letters about how you've changed their lives," he says. "Some of the kids who make it come back to help in summer. It gives me so much pleasure." *
Willis Thomas teaches tenacity as well as tennis, and kids love him for it.