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A Loudoun Schoolteacher Left More Than a Million Bucks to WAMU

The public radio station is using Clifford Thomson's bequest to upgrade its antenna

WAMU's headquarters on Connecticut Avenue, Northwest. Photograph by Jeff Elkins

When Clifford D. Thomson died in 2016, he left two gifts that surprised their recipients: $1.1 million for the Washington National Opera, where he was a chorister, and $1.2 million to Washington public radio station WAMU, which his lawyer told the station he listened to constantly.

WAMU is using Thomson’s bequest to help pay to upgrade the tower and antenna on American University’s campus; when the work is done the station expects to reach 400,000 more people. The entire project will cost $2.8 million and should be complete by the end of the year, WAMU general manager JJ Yore tells Washingtonian.

Thomson’s generosity is even more remarkable because he spent 35 years as a public schoolteacher at Loudoun Valley High School, where he taught choir and drama, among other subjects. He was born in the District in 1950 and grew up in Arlington and British Guiana, according to a 2016 obituary. He loved puns and good cooking, the obit says, and he especially loved singing—for the opera and at St. John’s Church near the White House. In 1994 he gave an interview to the Washington Post where he talked about what he’d learned in 20 years with the Washington Opera Chorus, including “Never sign a contract for a Mozart opera if you don’t play bridge. He just herds us onto the stage for the end of the acts.”

Thomson once brought his friend Calvin Remsberg, a star of the National Theatre’s production of Cats, to speak with students at Loudoun Valley High School. When they asked him what he hated about singing onstage, Remsberg replied, “Phlegm.” Thomson graduated from American, and he loved WAMU shows including the BBC News HourOn the Media, and The Big Broadcast, his lawyer told the station. While he was alive, he contributed $20 per month. His partner, a founder of the Washington Ballet dancer named John Goding, died in 2009. The two had been together for 30 years.

WAMU’s renovated transmitter will help the station broadcast deeper into northern Virginia suburbs. One of the places that will benefit from its stronger signal is Loudoun County.

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.