Articles > People & Politics
Washingtonians Of The Year 2004
For 33 years, The Washingtonian has honored people who make the region a better place. This year’s winners show what good people can do to make a difference.
No news is often good news for Anthony Williams. Since he became the District's fourth elected mayor, stories about the city no longer tell of unplowed snow, shaky finances, or a government that can't deliver basic services.
"When I'm out of town, I hear people from Maryland and Virginia saying they're from Washington," Williams says. "They are no longer trying to distance themselves from the District."
Now Williams has given suburbanites another reason to root for DC—he's bringing Major League Baseball back to Washington. More than 30 years after the Senators left for Texas, a new team will play ball at RFK Stadium this spring.
Williams sees big benefits for Washington: economic development like that surrounding the MCI Center and a boost to the spirit of the city.
As a boy, Williams played the infield on a Little League team coached by his dad. "I was a good base runner and a left-handed hitter," he recalls. When he was in the Air Force, stationed at Myrtle Beach, Williams coached a Little League team.
It is a side of the mayor rarely seen—his proudest moments are often out of public view. Williams talks about being in the Engine Company No. 4 firehouse when a 911 call was relayed there. It was a house fire on U Street, Northeast. Two small boys, ages six and three, were trapped inside. They were rescued by two DC firefighters who raced through the flames.
The 911 call was answered promptly, he says. The firefighters arrived promptly.
"To be standing there in the station, and to know that two boys are alive because of your firefighters, your government, you'll never forget that as long as you live," says Tony Williams. That's the kind of home run that counts.
The annual report of the Cafritz Foundation is a blue booklet with no glitz or photographs. But it contains a surprising story: Cafritz is the area's largest private foundation. It has assets of $347 million and gave $13 million in grants last year.
Anne Allen, executive director of the Cafritz Foundation, is as quiet and modest as the foundation itself. For 15 years she has expanded its reach into new fields and new neighborhoods. It gave seed money to plan the first Duke Ellington Jazz Festival, slated for 2005, invested in the new Victory Youth Center in Anacostia, and supported Homestretch Inc. to offer credit counseling to homeless families.
"I thought we should do more in the environment," Allen says; Cafritz funded collaborative efforts to clean up the Anacostia River.
Anne Allen "blames" her career in philanthropy on the late Philip M. Stern. In 1963, Allen was assisting Stern, a government official turned writer, with his projects. One day she went into his office and Stern cleared a pile of papers off a chair, motioned Allen to sit, and dumped the pile on her lap.
"That's my foundation, and you're going to run it," he said.
"He gave me the courage to do whatever I wanted to do," she recalls. Allen successfully ran the Stern Foundation and worked at the Public Welfare Foundation before coming to Cafritz. She has become a passionate advocate and friend to community groups in the arts, humanities, education, healthcare, and social service.
"I'm just glad that I'm here and that I can do it," she says. "I try very hard to be worthwhile."
MICHAEL M. KAISER
Since Michael Kaiser came to Washington four years ago to head the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, he has won approval for a major expansion that will link the center to the city and the river, persuaded Congress and donors to pay for the new plaza, established the Vilar Institute for Arts Management, brought the Kirov Ballet and the Royal Shakespeare Company to Washington, and staged such successful theater festivals that New Yorkers now come here to see shows.
What can he do for an encore?
Plenty, says Kaiser. He is about to raise the curtain on his biggest production—a five-month festival celebrating the 1940s. Kaiser rattles off the names of creative geniuses who emerged in the 1940s—Rodgers & Hammerstein, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein.
"It was an important time in this country's artistic development—a time of new optimism and confidence," he says.
Kaiser is also deeply concerned about the center's role as an arts educator. More than $20 million a year is devoted to work with schoolteachers and with other arts centers to get the arts into classrooms.
Kaiser once dreamed of being an opera singer. Now all of his creative energies are focused backstage. An unabashed impresario with the enthusiasm of a rock groupie and the business savvy of the management consultant he used to be, Kaiser has brought a new level of artistic achievement to the Kennedy Center.
"I get a thrill every time the curtain goes up," Kaiser says. "I get excited every time the audience gets excited. I don't need to be the one on stage."
MARLENE MALEK & ELLEN SIGAL
Cancer hit close to home for Marlene Malek and Ellen Sigal. Malek lost her father and three friends to the disease in a short period of time. Sigal's younger sister was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 32 and died at 40. The two women met when they served on the presidentially appointed National Cancer Advisory Board. Sigal saw a need to increase public awareness and support for the National Cancer Institute and the basic science that NCI supports. In 1996, she started Friends of Cancer Research, and Sigal then enlisted Malek: Sigal is chair of Friends, and Malek is president.
The two dynamos have been matchmakers for public-private partnerships to fund research and clinical trials. They have organized policy forums to bring together researchers, federal health agencies, patients, Congress, and industry leaders to develop a strategy on funding research and fighting cancer.
Some patients are wary of taking part in research projects. "People need to know that the best standard of care is available through NCI-supported clinical trials," Sigal says. "There are no placebos in cancer trials."
Early detection offers the best hope for cancer prevention, Sigal and Malek believe. If researchers can identify biological markers for cancers early enough, it may be possible to intervene on a cellular level before the disease develops.
"Hopefully, we're on the cutting edge of such great science. We just have to push forward," Malek says.
"We approach this like a business," explains Sigal—"where can we make the most difference."
"The impact they have had on improving the lives of cancer patients is multiplied by their influence in the cancer research and advocacy community," says Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, director of the National Cancer Institute. "The quantity and quality of life for cancer patients is increasing, and they are at the center of the formula for success."
The kids of the Boys & Girls Clubs knew they'd be winners no matter who won the presidential election. That's because Tim Russert, moderator of NBC's Meet the Press, got Washington's most partisan spouses, Republican Mary Matalin and Democrat James Carville, to bet $1,000 on the outcome. The loser had to write a check to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington.
Last year Russert encouraged Senators George Allen and Jon Corzine to make a similar bet on the air. Before that, Russert challenged the chairs of the national parties. Each bet was another win for the kids of the DC area.
Russert got involved with the clubs nine years ago, when they asked him to emcee their annual congressional dinner. But he had known about their work for years.
"My father was in a boys' club in the 1930s in south Buffalo," he says. "It's an organization where you can see firsthand results. You know you've changed someone's life."
Russert has emceed nine annual dinners and announced that he'll give $100,000 from the sales of his book Big Russ & Me to the clubs. When he won $20,000 on Jeopardy!, that check also went to the clubs.
"Last year we reached our $1-million fundraising goal and we absorbed the Metropolitan Police Boys & Girls Clubs," Russert says. "The best part is when the kids come back from college and talk about what they did. They want to come home and sponsor a kid."
"Tim brings tears to our eyes when he speaks so lovingly about his father or so painfully of the plight of our children," says Pat Shannon, president of the clubs. "He makes us laugh at his Yogi Berra stories, and he lifts us up with his donations. It doesn't get any better than Tim Russert."
"We need to be innovative and take advantage of the fact that we are in the nation's capital. That is the key to our success."
George Mason used to be the underdog of Virginia universities. Not anymore. Since Alan Merten became president in 1996, George Mason has become the state's fastest-growing university, adding students, new buildings, and schools in computer science and the arts.
Merten is proud to be called an "academic entrepreneur." He has brought top talent to Virginia—including wooing a whole economics team from Arizona headed by Vernon L. Smith in 2000. Two years later Smith won the Nobel Prize in economics.
GMU boasts two Nobel Prize winners on its law and economics faculty. "The idea that lawyers should know something about economics was an innovation," Merten says. In 1996 George Mason added technology to its law-school curriculum. In 2003, George Mason's law school made the top tier in the U.S. News ratings.
George Mason created Virginia's first doctoral program in bio-informatics and the nation's first doctoral program in conflict resolution. The university plans to build a biodefense-research facility and an arts center at its Prince William campus.
Bigger doesn't always mean better on college campuses—particularly for undergraduates. Merten knows how daunting a college can be for students and their parents. He's on campus the day freshmen students move in every August, greeting each car.
Merten sees boundless possibilities for GMU. Thanks to him, George Mason will keep growing stronger.
Think of any area nonprofit that serves adults or children: Bread for the City, Alexandrians Involved Ecumenically, Food & Friends, Martha's Table. It's probably one of more than 750 agencies supplied by the Capital Area Food Bank.
CAFB distributes 20 million pounds of recovered food to youth programs, nursing homes, shelters, clinics, churches, and apartments. They in turn serve 1.7 million meals a month—which still leaves 20 to 30 percent of area children at risk of hunger.
Lynn Brantley is doing something about it. In 1980 she helped form the CAFB, which first fed a few thousand people. She now oversees 55 staffers and tens of thousands of volunteers and supporters.
CAFB also offers an emergency hotline and four main programs: Volunteer chefs teach cooking and nutrition. The 49 Kids Cafe sites supply 2,100 children with evening and weekend meals plus tutoring. Workshops put people in others' shoes: "You have this many dollars. Can you cover the rent, groceries, and a doctor?" Sister Hook Up links member agencies with stores to get fresh fruits and vegetables directly.
It's a lot of administration, and Brantley has seen a lot of results. A distraught man once called a Hyattsville distribution center; she arranged for a church group to bring his family "a significant amount of food." Some time later, the man called back. Having lost his job and feeling he couldn't take care of his family, he'd been on the brink of suicide. "You don't know what this basket of food did for me," he told Brantley.
"A little bit of hope can turn you around," she says now. "We do this every day."
In the beginning, it was ugly. Bars covered the windows of the Fort Dupont ice rink. Scratched plexiglass obscured any view of the few private-school hockey teams at play inside. The stands were cold and uncomfortable, and two restrooms didn't work. Neighbors in Southeast DC's Marshall Heights found the building mysterious and intimidating. The Park Service, losing hundreds of thousands a year on the rink, decided to close it.
Willem Polak, father of a hockey player, had a different vision. Gathering other parents in 1995, he started a nonprofit group to renovate the rink and open it up to Ward 7 and beyond. They shoveled guano, knocked out cinder blocks, put in bleachers and padded walls, and bargained for a scoreboard. Clark Construction built locker rooms and a warming area. Sports outfitters donated 850 pairs of skates. Including such gifts, Polak's network raised close to $5 million.
A neon artist's FORT DUPONT ICE ARENA sign now welcomes more than 10,000 youth a year to the free Kids on Ice program. Those more advanced speed skate, figure skate, and play hockey—in brand-new skates they keep until outgrowing them. In hockey season, the rink is booked from dawn to midnight; in summer, kids skate daily while campers ply the rink until dark. After winning a regional competition, 11 Fort Dupont girls spent months training for small parts in the 2003 World Figure Skating Championships at the MCI Center.
Fort Dupont is "a safe place to play and grow into responsible, caring adults," says a volunteer instructor. "All of this takes place in a multicultural, multiracial atmosphere that should be the model for any city or state."
Susan Hager has an entrepreneurial spirit and a never-say-die attitude. Whether starting her own company, helping other women start theirs, or championing the Lab School of Washington, Hager delivers business smarts and enthusiasm.
"When Susan Hager commits herself, you can count on her," says school founder Sally Smith.
When they met, the Lab School was part of the Kingsbury Center. Hager was able to help Smith mobilize to make her vision for an independent school for children with learning disabilities a reality. When the school was ready to build its own building, Hager met with the construction team for 75 straight Fridays. The job was finished on time and on budget. Hager remains an active board member and volunteer—although she has never had a child who needed the education offered there.
Hager started her first business in high-school Junior Achievement in Kentucky. Years later, in 1973, when Hager and Marcia Sharp decided to start a marketing firm in Washington, one banker told Hager her husband had to cosign the bank loan. Before long, Hager was organizing other women in business to share strategies.
Hager Sharp is more than a financial success; the staff is so close that Hager's assistant donated a kidney to her. Hager has also become a leader of the Federal City Council, the Board of Trade, and other groups. Says Goodwill's Catherine Meloy, "She has made her voice heard, and backed her commitments with dollars and volunteer time."
The young sergeant sits on his bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, absentmindedly stroking what's left of his right leg. "I got hit with an RPG," he explains. "Not many people can say that. "Sometimes the bandages get tight; it gets uncomfortable… ."
"Let me tell you—you haven't been an amputee that long," says the 75-year-old vet beside him. "Your stump will shrink. It won't always be that big."
Irvin Axelrod knows from experience. As a 21-year-old private first class in Korea, he stepped on a land mine and landed on his back in a frozen rice paddy. After 22 operations, nearly five years in Army hospitals, and decades of pain, Axelrod finally had half his own right leg replaced by carbon fiber and titanium. He walks the halls without a limp.
Axelrod walks more today than he did in his career with the Defense Intelligence Agency, the CIA, and the Department of Commerce. He was founder of the Washington Amputee Association and president of the Northern Virginia Amputee Support Group. He's also testified before Congress against land mines, spoken at senior centers, advised the Department of Homeland Security on handling amputees at airports, and given disability-awareness workshops at Fairfax County schools: "I take off my leg and tell them 15 million people are in the same position."
After the Persian Gulf War, the National Rehabilitation Hospital created a job for Axelrod—to counsel amputees in a way medical experts could not. He saw 1,500 patients over six years.
"You get very depressed," he says. "Your body image is shattered. But a positive attitude is the key to recovery."
Axelrod traces his attitude back to an encounter with the deaf and blind Helen Keller, who told him to concentrate on what he had, not what was lost. He passes the message on. A man who'd lost both legs to diabetes came to the support group despondent at not being able to dance. At the next meeting, Axelrod arranged for a double amputee and his wife to dance before the group. "He just cried," Axelrod says. "He saw the possibility."
ROSALIA G-H MILLER
Rosalia Miller teaches art. She teaches Spanish. But most of all, she teaches kids that no dream is unattainable. As head of the Latino Student Fund, she has helped more than 800 Latino kids gain access to the area's private schools.
Born to an upper-class Nicaraguan family, Miller attended a Pennsylvania boarding school before studying art and spending 15 years with the International Monetary Fund. Her daughters' Nicaraguan babysitter "opened up a world I wasn't aware of in Washington," she says. "I saw schools not prepared for non-English-speaking students, kids who'd never seen snow and needed coats, parents who didn't know how to navigate the systems here."
Finding jobs for the sitter's friends led to creating a fair where schools could court Latino parents. It became popular but didn't guarantee good fits between child and campus. So Miller and others formalized the Latino Student Fund. Now it holds workshops that match parents to schools, sponsors children for admittance, and prepares them to pass muster.
The fund offers one-on-one tutoring for public-school kids as well as its scholars. Seeing the children distracted by hunger, Miller bought healthy breakfasts for them and their mothers. When the mothers asked for health information, she found speakers. When the kids were ready to hear about colleges, she launched a college fair.
They also get chances to catch up outside of school—like seeing Plácido Domingo at the Kennedy Center; like hearing role models explain how they made it. If a private school holds a ski trip, the fund makes sure its scholar has the money to go along.
From six children in 1994, the fund now supports 62 with grants and lots of volunteer help. Miller is proud of the group's 100-percent graduation rate. "They have the ability," she says. "They get the attention and support in small classes at independent schools to achieve a higher academic standing."
Miller wants more for the fund: a building, an endowment, a reach beyond Washington. "Kids who couldn't have a chance at a good life are getting education," she says. "With that, the doors open."
Suppose you met someone in the tightening grip of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig's disease. Would you devote your life to his—feeding him, driving him, lifting him off the floor until he died?
Joan Deye has. The girl who wanted to be a nurse became a woman who's given a quarter century to improving the lives of ALS patients—as a full-time volunteer.
Beginning by looking after a desperate, dying young mother, Deye took in a man named Marty with the same disease. The week he died, she brought a patient to a new support group, eventually becoming its leader and joining the ALS Association's Washington board.
Deye is singularly dedicated. She passes on news of research and drug trials. She connects patients with the chapter's loaner wheelchairs and neck braces. She lobbies Capitol Hill. She gets her family into walkathons, passes petitions, consults up and down the East Coast, attends funerals. Why? "It's a privilege when someone trusts me at such a private time," she explains. "I want these patients to live as high a quality of life as possible—to say they're better off with us than without us."
And not just the patients: Four years ago, Deye started a caregivers' group. "I learned a lot from Marty," the man who lived for a time in her family's home. "If you give too much, you'll have nothing left to give… . I tell people, 'Don't isolate yourself. You need support, too.' "
Deye gets support from thousands of area families; patients and relatives call her an angel and a godsend. "When someone hugs you and says 'I don't know what I'd do without you' "—she pauses—"you don't get much more back than that."
"This is not a job for me—it's more of a mission."
Not long ago, Britney McCoy was "in one of the lower groups" at Ronald H. Brown Middle School in Northeast DC's Deanwood, where cars vanished regularly and drugs were dealt within sight of the playground. These days McCoy is a top engineering-and-law major at Lafayette College.
The difference? Georgetown's Institute for College Preparation, led by Tom Bullock. With one assistant and a volunteer faculty, Bullock has prodded more than 100 at-risk teens toward higher education. So far, 95 percent have gone to college—in a city where just half its students finish high school.
ICP students get prepped each Saturday in English, Spanish, math, science, and DC history—plus study skills. Parents take part, too. Those who stay with the drills are rewarded with thrills: Between ninth and tenth grade, ICP kids go to Ecuador, Belize, or an equally far-flung spot, where they study genetics, language, and culture. Teens who've never left the District stare in awe out airplane windows.
In 1992, Bullock—a former engineer and math teacher—wrote a tougher, interdisciplinary curriculum, recruited African-American university instructors, and broadened students' exposure to art, music, and careers. "This program has definitely changed my life," says McCoy, who appreciated the college tours, SAT prep, and homework help. "Mr. Bullock is a second member of the family."
Bullock has expanded the program to four sixth-grade classes and wants more. "What if each DC university adopts two high schools and all their feeder schools?" he says. "We ask for the students most likely to fail"—and then he helps all his students succeed.
"So many kids told me they'd be dead without what we've done."
Remember all those killings at the Benning Terrace public housing? Rival gangs traded retaliatory murders, with children in the crossfire. Finally, in January 1997, the two DC gangs agreed to stop shooting. They signed a pact. The violence stopped.
That treaty was brokered by the Alliance of Concerned Men, five friends who attended Eastern High School in the 1960s. Seeing the deterioration of their neighborhood, they gathered in 1991 to decide how to help. Weeks later, a stray bullet took down cofounder Tyrone Parker's son. The group pledged to stop a cycle of violence.
Parker, the alliance's executive director, and the others started with counseling and workshops in group homes. They organized trips to Lorton to visit incarcerated fathers—and coached the fathers on communicating with their kids. The fathers also told alliance members what neighborhood hot spots to concentrate on and whom to see there.
From that, alliance work grew: life-skills training, spiritual guidance and mentoring, after-school programs, neighborhood-rehab jobs in partnership with the District government. School and church volunteers and field trips show kids positive alternatives to gang life.
"It all works because it has integrity and commitment and consistency," Parker says. "It's built on relationships." Those now extend to the Montgomery County jail and to initial gang work in Northern Virginia. Since its Benning Terrace breakthrough, the alliance has brought together six more sets of warring gangs, the latest in Prince George's County. The feuding leaders paid tribute to Parker's group at their peace summit.
Police could not have achieved the ceasefire: "We don't trust the police," one said. "We trust the alliance. You can feel their realness."
Said the other gang leader, "I got a grandfather who died in prison and a father who's doing life in prison. This has got to end."
In the beginning, Bonnie Fogel never imagined Imagination Stage. She just wanted her children to have the same exposure to the arts that she had growing up.
What started as a talent show at Burning Tree Elementary School turned into the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts in 1979. Fogel focused on administrative work, and Marcia Smith, a fellow parent with an acting background, taught the classes.
When Smith left in 1988, Fogel found other theater teachers and kept BAPA going. Today the newly renamed Imagination Stage is a state-of-the-art theater center with productions for young audiences, youth acting companies, and classes ranging from clay animation to improvisation. One hundred thousand area kids come to the theater complex housed in a Bethesda parking garage to see, perform, and learn.
Some of the most extraordinary performances give opportunities to children and young people with a range of disabilities. Fogel started an AccessAbility performance program for children with disabilities in 1988. A deaf-access program began a year later.
One young disabled actor describes what the theater does for her: "Most of the time, people don't even look at me," she says. "When I'm on stage is the only time I'm loved."
For years, Fogel took no salary. And she has never taken the spotlight. "She prefers to thank and boost all of the wonderful people who gravitate to her," says Caleen Sinnette Jennings, a playwright and theater professor at American University. "Bonnie Fogel is a true visionary, and she enables children to develop into visionary human beings."
Gary Williams learned some of his best life lessons on the basketball court. In 1967, he was a junior at the University of Maryland, a point guard and a starter on the Terrapins team. His basketball scholarship was the reason he could afford to go to Maryland as an out-of-stater.
"I realized that I really wasn't good enough to go further in basketball," Williams says. Instead he went into teaching and coaching high-school basketball, then followed his freshman coach and mentor, Tom Davis, into college coaching.
From Davis, Williams learned that a coach is first and foremost a teacher.
Williams did well enough to move up the coaching ladder. He was in his third year as head coach at Ohio State—and his third winning season—when he left Columbus for College Park.
It had to be a labor of love. Maryland basketball had not recovered from scandals in the 1980s. Soon after Williams arrived in 1989, the school was slapped with sanctions that limited scholarships and banned the team from TV appearances.
Williams did more than rebuild the University of Maryland basketball program—he helped reshape the way the university felt about itself. "I could feel the mood change on campus," Williams says.
Williams also has put his money where his heart is: He has pledged to donate $500,000 to academic scholarships and co-chair the campaign to raise at least $200 million for the Maryland scholarship fund.
Williams downplays his contributions. "I'm just like every alum who feels strongly about the place," he says.
Not exactly. His tenure at Maryland has been a sweet 16 years—11 consecutive postseason tournaments, seven Sweet 16 appearances, two Final Fours, and a national championship in 2002.
His accomplishments earned him a place in the first class inducted into the Greater Washington Sports Hall of Champions.
But Gary Williams measures his success in other ways: "We aren't afraid anymore to say we're a great university. Sports helped make that happen. That's a great thrill for me."