Archive for the ‘Public Figures’ Category

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Tim Russert’s headstone at Rock Creek Cemetery

After recently reading “Big Russ and Me, Father and Son: Lessons of Life”, the critically-acclaimed memoir written by Tim Russert, I found myself nostalgically remembering NBC’s Meet the Press when Tim Russert was the moderator.  While it was a nationally broadcast show, it was based here in D.C. And Russert was the moderator of the Sunday morning political news talk show for 16 years, until his death in 2008.  I also thought about how he was considered one of the most trusted and admired figures in American television newscasting.  But now the words trusted and and admired and news don’t seem to go in the same sentence much anymore.  A lot has changed in the world since he passed away.    

So, on this bike ride, I chose to ride to Rock Creek Cemetery, in northwest D.C.’s Brightwood Park neighborhood (MAP), to visit the gravesite where Russert is buried.  

Born Timothy John Russert in Buffalo, New York (about an hour from where I was born), he was the second of four children and the only son of Timothy Joseph “Big Russ” Russert, a sanitation worker, and Elizabeth “Betty” Seeley Russert, a homemaker. He received a Jesuit education from Canisius High School, before earning a bachelor’s degree in 1972 from John Carroll University and a Juris Doctor with honors from the Cleveland State University Cleveland–Marshall College of Law, in 1976.

After completing his education and before becoming moderator for Meet the Press, Russert’s career highlights included running one of U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s five major law offices based in Buffalo. Within five years he became a special counsel and chief of staff to Moynihan, a Democrat from Hell’s Kitchen, New York. He then became a top aide to New York Governor Mario Cuomo, also a Democrat.  

He left politics in 1984 to become a journalist when he became the senior vice president of NBC News’ Washington operations. Four years later, in 1988, he was promoted to Washington bureau chief of NBC News. And in 1991 he took the job as moderator of Meet the Press. Throughout his time on Meet the Press, Russert also moderated numerous political debates between candidates in U.S. Senate races, governor races in various states, and between presidential candidates. The candidates in those debates included politicians ranging from David Duke to Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Russert met Maureen Orth at the 1980 Democratic National Convention. They were married three years later at the Basilica de San Miguel in Madrid, Spain. Maureen was also a journalist, and still works as a reporter, author, and a special correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine. Together they had one child, a son, named Luke. Luke is a former NBC News correspondent, and was an intern with ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption and NBC’s Late Night with Conan O’Brien. Luke currently hosts the XM Radio show 60/20 Sports with political consultant James Carville, who has made numerous appearances on Meet the Press.  

In June of 2008 Russert returned from a family vacation in Rome, Italy, where they had celebrated Luke’s graduation from Boston College. While his wife and son remained in Rome, Russert had returned to prepare for his Sunday show. On June 13th, at the offices of WRC-TV where he was recording voiceovers for his show, Russert collapsed from a heart attack. A co-worker immediately began performing CPR on him while 911 was called. The D.C. Fire and Rescue service received the call at 1:40 pm and dispatched an EMS unit which arrived four minutes later.  Paramedics attempted to defibrillate Russert’s heart three times, but he did not respond. Russert was then transported to Sibley Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was 58 years old, the same age I am now. 

As I sat on the bench at Russert’s gravesite, I thought about how much more vitriolic and divisive politics have become since he passed away.  In 2008 Donald Trump was a celebrity TV star who hosted “The Apprentice” and co-hosted “The Celebrity Apprentice”.  And that year Donald Trump backed Hillary Clinton for president and stated that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi should impeach President George W. Bush.  And as I sat there I wondered what Russert would have thought of the fact that Donald Trump was now the President, who beat Hillary Clinton to become President, and was later impeached by Speaker Pelosi.  And I wondered if, considering how different the world is now, things could ever get back to the way they were when Russert hosted Meet the Press.   

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Some additional interesting aspects of Russert’s life include: 

  • Although he wasn’t the first to use the terminology, Russert is credited coining the phrases “red states” and “blue states”. However, when Russert used the phrases Republican states were blue, and Democratic states were red. The colors have since switched places, and how the colors got switched is not clear.
  • Russert once told a story on Meet the Press about how he went to Woodstock “in a Buffalo Bills jersey with a case of beer.”
  • While in law school, an official from John Carroll University called Russert to ask if he could book some concerts for the school as he had done while a student there. One concert that Russert booked was headlined by a then-unknown singer named Bruce Springsteen, who charged $2,500 for the appearance.
  • During his coverage of the 2000 presidential election, Russert calculated possible Electoral College outcomes using a whiteboard, and that whiteboard is now in the Smithsonian Institution.
  • Russert was an enthusiastic sports fan. He grew up as a New York Yankees fan, but switched his allegiance to the Washington Nationals when they were established in D.C. in 2005.
  • Russert held season tickets to both the Nationals baseball games and the Washington Wizards basketball games.
  • Russert was also a lifelong fan of the Buffalo Bills football team, and often closed Sunday broadcasts during the football season with a statement of encouragement for the franchise. The team released a statement on the day of his death, saying that listening to Russert’s “Go Bills” exhortation was part of their Sunday morning game preparation.
  • After he passed away, the route leading to the Bills’ Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, was renamed the “Timothy J. Russert Highway”.
  • Russert was also a fan of the Buffalo Sabres hockey team and appeared on an episode of Meet the Press next to the Stanley Cup during a Sabres playoff run.
  • Russert, when he was a student at the Cleveland–Marshall College of Law, attended Ten Cent Beer Night, a promotion by the Cleveland Indians which ended in a riot at the stadium. “I went with $2 in my pocket,” he recalled. “You do the math.”
  • Russert was elected in 2003 to the board of directors of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
  • Russert was friends with Fred Rogers, host of the iconic PBS children’s program “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”.
  • During his career, Russert received 48 honorary doctorate degrees.
  • Russert’s favorite beer was Rolling Rock. And, at his funeral, friend and fellow NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw brought and raised a Rolling Rock in Russert’s memory.
  • Russert received an Emmy Award for his news coverage of the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan.
  • Russert was a lifelong devout Catholic, and shortly before his death he had an audience with Pope Benedict XVI.
  • In 2008, the same year in which he would later pass away, Time magazine named Russert one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

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The Sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknowns

Since 1937 the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery (MAP) has been guarded every minute of every day, 365 days a year, even when the cemetery is closed and in any kind of weather. It is guarded by Tomb Guard sentinels, who are considered to be the best of the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, known as “The Old Guard,” headquartered at Fort Myer, Virginia, which is adjacent to the cemetery. Serving the U.S. since 1784, the Old Guard is the oldest active infantry unit in the military.

Because it is considered such a high honor, the process to become a sentinel is incredibly difficult. Members of the Old Guard must volunteer for the position. Volunteers who are accepted are then assigned to Company E of The Old Guard. Each soldier must be in superb physical condition, possess an unblemished military record and be between 5 feet, 10 inches and 6 feet, 4 inches tall for males or 5 feet, 8 inches and 6 feet, 2 inches tall for females with a proportionate weight and build. An interview and a two-week trial to determine a volunteer’s capability to be trained as a sentinel then is required.

During the trial phase, would-be sentinels memorize seven pages of Arlington National Cemetery history. This information must be recited verbatim in order to earn a “walk.” A walk occurs between guard changes. A daytime walk is one-half hour in the summer and one hour in the winter. All night walks are one hour.

And each walk performed by a tomb sentinel is identical, with the steps the sentinels perform having specific meaning. Everything the sentinels do is a series of 21, which symbolizes the 21-gun salute, the highest military honor that can be bestowed, and is reserved for the President and foreign heads of state, but also for the Unknowns.

The sentinel marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp “shoulder-arms” movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors to signify that the sentinel stands between the Tomb and any possible threat.

The Sentinel then repeats this over and over until the Guard Change Ceremony begins with the appearance of a relief commander, who will approach and salute the Tomb. The commander then turns to the crowd and asks everyone to rise and remain silent during the ceremony. As the Commander is speaking, the relief sentinel will report. The commander will walk over to the relief sentinel and conduct a full inspection of the new sentinel, inspecting the weapon and the sentinel himself. This is a real inspection and the relief sentinel can be sent away, leaving the current sentinel in place till the next scheduled Changing of the Guard. If approved, both the commander and relief sentinel will walk to the middle to meet with the posted sentinel, all the while keeping in step with each other. At this point, the ceremony concludes when the posted sentinel step off of the mat and faces the relief sentinel. Both sentinels will acknowledge each other with orders. All three will salute the Tomb, then the relief sentinel will step onto the mat and take over where the now relieved sentinel left off. Both the commander and the relieved sentinel will then walk off in step with each other and exit to the right, concluding the ceremony.

Duty time when not “walking” is spent in the Tomb Guard Quarters below the Memorial Display Room of the Memorial Amphitheater where they study cemetery “knowledge,” clean their weapons and help the rest of their relief prepare for the Changing of the Guard. The guards also train on their days off.

If a soldier successfully passes the training during the trial phase, “new-soldier” training begins. New sentinels learn the history of Arlington National Cemetery and the grave locations of nearly 300 veterans. They learn the guard-change ceremony and the manual of arms that takes place during the inspection portion of the Changing of the Guard. Sentinels also learn to keep their uniforms and weapons in immaculate condition, a meticulous process that by itself can take up to eight hours each day.

After several months of walking and serving, sentinels are then tested to earn the privilege of wearing the silver Tomb Guard Identification Badge. First, they are tested on their manual of arms, uniform preparation and their walks. Then, the Badge Test is given. The test is 100 randomly selected questions of the 300 items memorized during training on the history of Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The would-be badge holder must get more than 95 percent correct to succeed.

The Tomb Guard badge is the least awarded badge in the Army, and the second least awarded badge in the overall military. (The first is the astronaut badge.) Tomb Sentinels are held to the highest standards of behavior, and can have their badge taken away for any action on or off duty that could bring disrespect to the Tomb. And that’s for the entire lifetime of the Tomb Guard, even well after his or her guarding duty is over.

The Sentinel’s Creed

My dedication to this sacred duty is total and whole-hearted.
In the responsibility bestowed on me never will I falter.
And with dignity and perseverance my standard will remain perfection.
Through the years of diligence and praise and the discomfort of the elements,
I will walk my tour in humble reverence to the best of my ability.
It is he who commands the respect I protect, his bravery that made us so proud.
Surrounded by well meaning crowds by day, alone in the thoughtful peace of night,
this soldier will in honored glory rest under my eternal vigilance.

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NOTE:  Due to the coronavirus pandemic Arlington National Cemetery is closed to visitors until further notice.  Funerals, however, are proceeding as scheduled albeit with certain limitations.  Please check their website for specific and updated information.

The Other Ben Ali Mural

Baltimore has crab cakes.  Chicago has Deep Dish Pizza.  And whether you prefer Pat’s or Geno’s, Philadelphia has the Philly Cheesesteak.  Here in D.C. we have the half-smoke – a half beef, half pork coarsely-ground sausage that is smoked before it’s grilled.  But in D.C., when it comes to this city’s signature food, there is no rivalry or controversy.  The best place to get a half-smoke is the original Ben’s Chili Bowl.

All week I have had a craving for a half-smoke, split and grilled, and served on a warm steamed bun with onions and Ben’s spicy homemade chili sauce, and a side of onion rings and a Cherry Coke.  So to end the week, on today’s bike ride I rode to Ben’s Chili Bowl for lunch.

As I was leaving after my delicious and satisfying lunch, I stopped and spent some time taking in the mural in the alley on the east side of the restaurant’s building.  Over the years the various murals that have graced the west side of the building, in the alley officially recognized by the city as “Ben Ali Way,” have gotten considerable attention from the press.  But the other, less-famous mural, is equally intriguing to me.  It is dedicated to the owners and founders of Ben’s Chili Bowl – Ben and Virginia Ali.  So I decided to find out more about the couple who founded the restaurant where I have eaten so many times.

Mahaboob Ali, commonly known Ben here in D.C., was born on June 13, 1927, in British Trinidad and Tobago.  He was the firstborn of seven children in a Muslim family, and was raised in the town of San Juan, which is located east of the capital city of Port of Spain.  Ben moved to the United States in 1945 as a student, where he enrolled at the University of Nebraska.  At that time he was planning on becoming a medical doctor.  But as the result of a fall down an elevator shaft while at the school he suffered a broken back.  He spent months recovering from the accident. Following his recovery, Ben attended four separate schools before earning his bachelor’s degree from Howard University here in D.C.

Virginia Ali grew up on a farm in rural Virginia and moved to D.C. looking for a job and new opportunities in the big city.  She went to work for one of D.C.’s heralded institutions — as a teller at Industrial Bank, the first African-American-owned bank in D.C.  It was at the bank that she met Ben, the man with whom she fell in love, married, and became lifelong business partners with.

In 1958, newlyweds Ben and Virginia began renovating the building at 1213 U Street.  Built in 1910, the building first housed a silent movie house called the Minnehaha Theater.  Later, Harry Beckley, one of D.C.’s first black police detectives, converted it into a pool hall.   The Ali’s simply wanted to own a business that would give them the means to raise their children.  Ben had worked at a restaurant in college, and they decided to open up their own.  They had no idea it would become such a huge success.  Today, Ben’s has spawned locations all over the local area.  It employs approximately 170 people and has about $8 million in revenue.

Ben passed away in October of 2009 at the age of  82.  Virginia, who was only 24 years old when she and her husband started the restaurant, is now 85, and can still be found working at the U Street location most days – greeting customers and keeping tabs on the business that is now run be her family.  Her three sons Kamal, Nizam and Haidar as well as her two daughters-in-law now run the day-to-day operations.

In August Ben’s will celebrate it’s 61st anniversary.  Over those years people have changed.  I certainly have.  The restaurant, however, has not.  The counter, booths and stools are all original.  And the half-smokes are just as delicious as they’ve always been.  Since the first time I ate there decades ago, I’ve known how good the food is.  And now, I know a little more about the people too.

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Trivia Fact: Due to Islamic prohibitions against consuming pork, Ben Ali never consumed some of his own restaurant’s popular offerings.

The Original Founding Church of Scientology

Scientology is a body of beliefs and practices originally conceived and launched by American science fiction author Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, more popularly known as L. Ron Hubbard.  He initially developed a program of ideas he called Dianetics, which was distributed through The Dianetics Foundation.  However, the foundation quickly entered bankruptcy, and Hubbard lost the rights to the program’s foundational publication, entitled “Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health.”  He then rebranded the program as a “religion” and renamed it Scientology, retaining the same terminology, doctrines, the E-meter, and the practice of auditing from Dianetics.  Within a year, he regained the rights to the book and combined both under the umbrella of the “Church of Scientology.”

On this bike ride I stopped by Hubbard’s former residence here in D.C., located at 1812 19th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s DuPont Circle neighborhood.  Formerly the residence of Senator James Jones of Arkansas, and of Virginia Congressman Claude Swanson, the house is now officially known as the L. Ron Hubbard House and is listed that way on the National Register of Historic Places.  The house was interesting, and made me want to learn more about L. Ron Hubbard, and the “church” he founded.

The 19th Street house was not Hubbard’s first residence in the city.  He also lived in D.C. while briefly attending George Washington University in the 1930’s, before dropping out to focus on his career as a science fiction novelist.  But the house is where Hubbard lived in the mid to late 1950’s, during which he incorporated the Church of Scientology, and the house as its first official “church.”  It is also where the first Scientology wedding ceremony took place.

Additionally, the house was the site of a raid in 1963 by the Food and Drug Administration that resulted in the seizure of more than 100 electropsychometers, or “E-meters.”  These devices are used as part of the church’s “auditing” process in which auditors measure the electrodermal activity of a prospective new member, referred to as a “preclear,” in order to identify “engrams,” or detailed mental images or memories of traumatic events from the past that occurred when the person was either “partially or fully unconscious.”  According to Scientology, the auditing process “lifts the burdened individual from a level of spiritual distress to a level of insight and inner self-realization.”

The 1963 Federal raid at the house would be a sign of things yet to come.  Scientology is seen as one of the most controversial and secretive “religions” in the United States.  But its mysterious and paranoid character, combined with its connection to celebrities like Tom Cruise, make it an inherently intriguing entity.  The following are just a few of the beliefs, events, scandals, and other unusual and interesting facts about Scientology and its founder:

  • According to L. Ron Hubbard, 75 million years ago an evil alien named Xenu was the dictator of the Galactic Confederacy.  Xenu brought millions of immortal disembodied spirits, or “thetans,” to “Teegeeack” (a.k.a. Earth), and placed them around volcanoes.  Thetans have had innumerable past lives, including in extraterrestrial worlds and cultures.  The thetans remained trapped on Teegeeack, and jumped into newborns’ bodies.  Xenu then implanted the newborns with false images of historical events, which Hubbard claimed never occurred like the death of Jesus Christ.  These thetans, according to Hubbard, are human souls.
  • Scientologists believe mental illness doesn’t exist and, therefore, do not believe in psychology and are vehemently against using psychiatric medication.  Hubbard believed that psychiatrists were evil and even characterized them as terrorists.  According to Hubbard, multiple thetans crowded in our bodies are the source of our anxieties and fears.
  • The Church of Scientology believes that there is no set dogma on God and everyone can have one’s own understanding of God. There is more of an emphasis on the godlike nature of people and to the workings of the human mind.
  • Scientologists also celebrate holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and many other diverse religious holidays depending on other religious beliefs, as Scientologists very often retain their original affiliations with faiths in which they were raised.
  • When Sara Northup, Hubbard’s second wife, threatened to leave him unless he got psychiatric help, he reportedly kidnapped their daughter Alexis. According to written accounts from Northup, Hubbard told her he “cut [Alexis] into little pieces” and dropped her in a river. Then he would call back and tell Sara that their daughter was alive.
  • On July 8, 1977, the FBI raided Scientology’s Los Angeles, Hollywood and D.C. offices, which at the time was the biggest raid in the history of the Bureau.  The raids were part of “Operation Snow White,” in which Scientology operatives infiltrated, wiretapped, and stole documents from government offices, most notably those of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, in an attempt to protect their public image.  Eleven highly placed Church executives, including Hubbard’s wife and second-in-command of the “church,” Mary Sue Hubbard, pleaded guilty and were convicted in Federal court of obstructing justice, burglary of government offices, and theft of documents and government property.
  • In furtherance of protecting Scientology’s public image, the church tried to censor Wikipedia by repeatedly attempting to remove information critical of it.  Because of this, the website has banned any organization affiliated with Scientology from editing its articles.
  • The Church of Scientology engages in what’s called “Dead Agenting” to combat any negative comments about the Church of Scientology and Scientology itself. The church’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, created the church’s “Dead Agent” Doctrine with rules on how to govern and retaliate against negativity.
  • One of the Church’s longtime goals was to be recognized by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) as a fully tax-exempt religion.  It is alleged that in pursuit of this goal, Scientology members filed approximately 2,400 total lawsuits against IRS employees, and private investigators were sent to IRS conferences and conventions to dig up information.  Eventually, in October of 1993, the church and the IRS reached an agreement under which the church discontinued all of its litigation against the IRS and paid $12.5 million to settle a tax debt said to be around a billion dollars, and the IRS granted 153 Scientology-related corporate entities tax exemption as well as the right to declare their own subordinate organizations tax-exempt in future.
  • Many other countries, including Germany, France, Canada, and the United Kingdom, have rejected Scientology and its applications for tax exemption, charitable status, and recognition as a religion.
  • The Cult Awareness Network listed Scientology as the number one most dangerous cult. The Church of Scientology responded to this “label” by suing the Network into bankruptcy and now owns the Network. 
  • Believing that if it gets celebrities to endorse Scientology then the public by and large will follow suit, the church has a long history of seeking out actors, writers, artists, and musicians, stating that it can improve their careers and lives.  Hubbard developed a program in 1955 called ‘Project Celebrity’ which governs celebrity recruitment and offers rewards to Scientologists who recruit targeted celebrities.  The Church of Scientology also runs special “celebrity centers,” with the main ones being in Los Angeles, Florida, Paris, and Nashville.
  • Famous people who are or have previously been involved in Scientology include: actors Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley, Kelly Preston, Anne Archer, Catherine Bell, Priscilla Presley, Jenna Elfman, Giovanni Ribisi, Bijou Phillips, Juliette Lewis, Alanna Masterson, and Laura Prepon; musicians Sonny Bono, Beck, Chick Corea, Isaac Hayes, Edgar Winter, and rapper Doug E. Fresh; TV show host Greta Van Susteren, and; cult leader and mass murderer Charles Manson.
  • After L. Ron Hubbard died in 1986, a Scientology publication was released which stated that he invented music three million years ago, making him the original musician.
  • Scientologists are obsessed with the apocalypse and are constantly preparing for it by building secret bunkers deep in the woods. These bunkers have huge vaults with footage and images of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, and nuclear-proof shelters.
  • L. Ron Hubbard has written over 275 published books in topics ranging from science fiction to romance, making him a Guinness Book of Records holder for the most published and translated books by one author.
  • The works of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, are protected in a huge vault built into the side of a mountain. His writings, engraved on stainless steel tablets, are safely stored in thousands of heat-resistant titanium boxes. The tablets are even playable on a solar-powered turntable. The mountainside where the tablets are stored, called Trementia Base near Trementia, New Mexico, is guarded by the Church of Spiritual Technology, a division of the Church of Scientology that manages the church’s copyright affairs. Hubbard’s other writings, films, and recordings are also archived here for future generations.
  • L. Ron Hubbard claimed that he was many people before he was born on March 13, 1911. He told his associates he was once Cecil Rhodes, the British businessman and diamond mining magnate. Hubbard also once said, “You don’t get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.”  According to an estate filing after his death in 1986, Hubbard was worth $26 million.

The Original Founding Church of Scientology

The Magnolias at the Enid A. Haupt Garden

Today the cherry blossoms here in D.C. begin their “peak bloom.”  Peak bloom is defined by the National Park Service as the day when 70 percent of the cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin are open.  But the best time to see the cherry blossoms, depending on the weather, is four to seven days after peak bloom.  So I will be posting some photos of this year’s cherry blossoms later in the week.

During this lunchtime bike ride, I went out to see one of the cherry blossoms’ seasonal precursors, magnolia blossoms.  There are many places throughout D.C. where there is an abundance of magnolia trees, such as the U.S. National Arboretum, Rawlins Park, and Lafayette Square Park, to name just a few.  But on this bike ride I stopped by the Enid A. Haupt Garden, located at 1050 Independence Avenue (MAP) in the Southwest portion of D.C.’s Downtown neighborhood. 

The garden is named after Enid Annenberg Haupt, an American publisher and philanthropist who, as an heiress to a family fortune, was able to make significant contributions to her personal causes and interests, including the arts, architectural and historic preservation, and cancer research.  But foremost among her interests and philanthropic endeavors was horticulture.  Her devotion to restoring and maintaining gardens around the country and the world earned Haupt a reputation as “the greatest patron American horticulture has ever known.”

The garden opened on May 21, 1987 as part of the redesigned Smithsonian Castle quadrangle, which was financed by a three-million dollar endowment Haupt provided for its construction and maintenance.  Initially approached with a request that she finance a small Zen garden within the quadrangle, after a review of the plans Haupt said that she was “not interested in putting money into a Zen garden … I’m only interested in financing the whole thing.”

The Haupt Garden is a public garden in the Smithsonian complex.  It is situated on just over four acres between the back of the Castle and Independence Avenue, and features an embroidered parterre in a geometric design of plants and flowers rotated seasonally, an Asian-influenced garden adjacent to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, and a Moorish-influenced garden adjacent to the National Museum of African Art, and wide brick walks, and 19th-century cast-iron garden furnishings from the Smithsonian Gardens’ Garden Furniture Collection line the perimeter.

But it was the saucer and tulip magnolias that I went to the park to enjoy today.  The magnificent trees do not have the same history and fame as do the cherry trees that line the nearby Tidal Basin, but these magnolias are equal in beauty with their more famous counterparts.  And the aroma of the magnolia blossoms filled the air.  It was a great way to spend the first day of the cherry blossoms’ peak bloom.

 

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Update (4/4/2019):  What a difference a few days make.  The photo (below) is of the same magnolia trees three days after the first photo (above).  So if you’re going to come see them next year, make sure your timing is right.  The brevity of the magnolia blossoms is similar to that of the cherry blossoms.

Howard Theater Walk of Fame

On this lunchtime bike ride, I stopped riding and walked my bike one the sidewalk starting north on 7th Street beginning at S Street (MAP), and rounding the corner onto T Street before ending at The Howard Theatre in northwest D.C.’s U Street neighborhood.  I did this so that I could see the sidewalk medallions that comprise The Howard Theater Walk of Fame.

The concept for the new walk of fame was in development since 2008 by the Shaw and LeDroit Park communities in their passion to preserve and honor the rich history of the historic Howard Theatre, and was subsequently commissioned by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities in partnership with the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, and Cultural Tourism D.C., a nonprofit that promotes the arts across the city.

After a call for artists in 2016, D.C.-based design firm Hackreative along with sculptors Jay Coleman and Joanna Blake were selected to design the medallions. Their pieces draw design elements from the architecture of the Howard Theatre itself, including the braided arch and banner on the building’s sign, and the block frame around the marquee.

The walk of fame consists of fifteen medallions memorializing and recognizing different artists and musicians that have performed at the Howard Theater since it first opened in 1910, who were chosed by a panel of representatives from the commissioning groups, plus a few Shaw and LeDroit Park leaders.  The medallions honor Pearl Bailey, Chuck Brown, James Brown, Ruth Brown, Cab Calloway, The Clovers, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Marvin Gaye, Lionel Hampton, Moms Mabley, Abbie Mitchell, Billy Taylor, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and a combination of Howard Theatre managers and owners.  Upright signs that detail the history of the theater and the artists represented bookend the project.

After today’s ride, I later went home and listened to performances by the artists recognized by the walk of fame.  That music was a perfect way to end the day, and a long workweek.

 

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Edward R. Murrow Park

The late Edward R. Murrow was the first journalist to have Federal parkland named after him, when a tiny triangle of land on Pennsylvania Avenue just west of The White House was dedicated to him almost 40 years ago. And during today’s lunchtime bike ride I stopped by the park to see it.

Located on Pennsylvania Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Downtown district, it is just opposite the former U.S. Information Agency (USIA), which Murrow headed from 1961 to 1963. The USIA’s successor, the International Communication Agency, is now headquartered in the same building at 1776 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Edward R. Murrow was born Egbert Roscoe Murrow at Polecat Creek, North Carolina in April of 1908. He was the youngest of three brothers born to Quaker parents. When Murrow was six years old, his family moved across the country to Skagit County in western Washington, just 30 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border. He attended high school in nearby Edison, excelled on the debate team, and was president of the student body in his senior year. After graduation from high school, Murrow enrolled at Washington State College, where he was also active in college politics. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1930, he moved back east to New York.

It was in New York that Murrow joined the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) as director of talks and education in 1935, and remained with the network for his entire career. He first gained prominence as a broadcast journalist and war correspondent during World War II with a series of live radio broadcasts from Europe for the news division of the CBS. During the war he recruited and worked closely with a team of war correspondents who came to be known as the Murrow Boys.

A pioneer of radio and television news broadcasting, Murrow produced a series of reports on his television program See It Now which helped lead to the censure of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Fellow journalists Eric Sevareid, Ed Bliss, Bill Downs, Dan Rather, and Alexander Kendrick consider Murrow one of journalism’s greatest figures, noting his honesty and integrity in delivering the news.

Regardless of your political persuasion, most people can agree that we could use a lot more honesty and integrity in our current news reporting. I guess you could say that society needs another Edward R. Murrow. Unfortunately, there was only one.

         

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Two of the most well known murals in the city are located on either side of the iconic restaurant Ben’s Chili Bowl, located in northwest D.C.’s Shaw/Uptown neighborhood, next to The Lincoln Theatre, in an historic building at 1213 U Street (MAP).  The one on the east side of the building, entitled “Alchemy of Ben Ali,” depicts the restaurant founders, Ben and Virginia Ali.  But it is the other one that became controversial, leading to its removal.

In 2012, the Ali family commissioned its first mural with backing from the city’s graffiti prevention initiative, MuralsDC.  A few years later, however, public pressure to redo it started to grow as sexual assault allegations began to accumulate against one of the prominently featured people depicted in the mural – comedian Bill Cosby, who was accused and has subsequently been convicted of sexual assault.  Last year, the mural was first whitewashed, and eventually replaced.

The old mural featured local disc jockey Donnie Simpson, D.C.’s Chuck Brown – the Godfather of Go-Go, President Barack Obama, and Cosby.  Three of those men returned on the replacement mural.  Cosby, who had been a longtime friend of Ben’s, did not.

The newer mural, entitled “The Torch,” painted by D.C. muralist Aniekan Udofia, who also painted the original mural, celebrates D.C. history and black culture.  The mural depicts abolitionist and political activist Harriet Tubman holding a lantern that spreads light onto the other figures in the mural.  In addition to the three holdovers from the previous mural, those figures, who were chosen through a public voting process on the restaurant’s web site, are:  boxer and activist Muhammad Ali; former D.C. mayor-for-life Marion Barry; comedian and D.C. native Dave Chappelle; singer Roberta Flack;  comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory; actress and singer Taraji P. Henson; D.C.’s non-voting Delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton; the late singer Prince; longtime local newscaster Jim Vance; D.C. rapper Wale; local radio disc jockey Russ Parr, and; former First Lady Michelle Obama, who now accompanies her husband.

But Virginia Ali, Ben’s widow, says the decision to repaint was based on the state of the mural alone, which she contended had become so soiled, damaged and weather-beaten.  Which means, years from now the mural may need to again be replaced.  So despite not making the cut for the current mural, I still have a chance.  I’ll just have to be patient and wait.

benaliwaymural01

Original Mural

The Whitewash

The Torch

         

         

         

         

         
[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Emma G

During today’s bike ride, I stopped to watch a street performer playing music outside of the Metro Center transit system station (MAP), located in Downtown D.C.  I had heard her briefly once before, at Christmastime at the Downtown Holiday Market.  But at that time, despite wanting to stay and listen longer, I had to get back to work.  Today, however, I was able to stay for what for me turned out to be an hour-long beginning-of-the-week concert.  The performer’s name is Emma Ghaemmaghamy, but she is more commonly known as Emma G.

Emma G moved to D.C. almost three years ago from New Zealand, where she was the lead singer with the Auckland-based hard rock band Static Era.  After arriving stateside she worked for a few months or so at various jobs in Massachusetts and Connecticut before moving here.  But since arriving in D.C., she’s been focusing all of her time and energy, and her soul into the reason she moved here, to establish a music career in America.  She now works full time as a singer, songwriter, musician, vocal teacher, and actor.  She plays in various local clubs, bars and numerous community events throughout the city.  For example, just recently Emma G was one of the winners of the 2018 Sing Into Spring competition.  And as a result, along with Summer Pearson and Eli Lev, she sang on national television the opening song at this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, which took place earlier this month here in D.C.  Within the last year she has also played at The Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and Arena Stage.

Her career also takes her far beyond our national capital city.  Since moving here she has also completed two tours of California, as well as a nationwide New Zealand tour entitled “All Roads Lead To Home (not Rome).”

Emma G’s music crosses the confines of individual genres.  She describes her music as “always having had a bit of tug and war between rock and pop”, but more recently also incorporating a whole bunch of funk, hip-hop and rap songs.  Her current sound she describes as “having a hint of aggression and sassiness but with a funky edge – kind of Pink meets Adele meets Tracy Chapman”.

A lot of her music also conveys a social consciousness, and not surprisingly for D.C., a certain political aspect as well.  For example, she has described her recent song “Superhero” as being about “using love as a superpower to win out over hate, bigotry, racism and sexism.”  And her studio single “Sold (Take A Shot)” she has described as her “anthem to women in particular with the messaging of ‘my body my choice’.”

It states on her website that she “is known as the ‘Kiwi girl’ who plays great songs.”  But if you’re not fortunate enough to be able to hear her in person, her music is available on iTunes, AmazonGoogle Play, Spotify, and SoundCloud.  And you can even download a free copy of her recent album entitled “Real Talk – Live in Washington, D.C.”

As I was enjoying her musical performance this morning in front of the metro station, I also watched the commuters as they came off the escalators and passed by her on their way to work.  And I felt sorry for many of them.  They seemed to be so caught up in their rush to get to their destinations that they didn’t pause to enjoy the music.  Many of them didn’t even look up to see her smiling, or hear her intermittently greeting them and wishing them a fantastic day.  They simply zoned out and followed each other like lemmings heading off a cliff or, in this case, to their jobs.

But not all of the passersby were oblivious to her presence.  I saw many of them start smiling once they saw her, or when they first heard the music.  Some waved.  A few even gave her a thumbs up.  And some of them exuded an air of familiarity in their interactions with her, much like regulars in a neighborhood bar.  They are the ones I envision having a good day and being happy throughout the day.

At the beginning of this post I wrote that Emma G is a street performer.  But with all due respect to that genre of entertainer, I would come to find out that she is much more than a street performer.  She emits a personal kind of gravity that draws you in.  Her contagious smile automatically evokes smiles from others.  And her music makes you feel like it’s going to be a good day.  She not only performs, but seems to also possess the power to make other people happy.  Experiencing her perform was a great way to start out my Monday at the beginning of a new work week.  And I think it’s going to be a good week.


The sound quality on these videos is not very good because I took them with my cellphone.  But you can
view and listen to her official videos here!

             
[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

The FBI’s Washington Field Office

In honor of Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., who would have turned 98 years old today, on this bike ride I rode to the FBI Headquarters building, and from there to the FBI’s Washington Field Office, which is located at 601 4th Street(MAP).  Mr. Zimbalist was an actor who is arguably most widely known for his starring role as Inspector Lewis Erskine in the television series “The F.B.I.”, which premiered on September 19, 1965 and closed with the last episode on September 8, 1974. The series was an authentic telling of fictionalized accounts of actual FBI cases, with fictitious main characters carrying the stories.

Mr. Zimbalist developed and maintained a strong personal relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, the real-life Director of the FBI at that time.  Although he was never seen in the series, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover actually served as series consultant. Mr. Hoover requested technical accuracy for the show, and that Agents be portrayed in the best possible light. Actors who played F.B.I. employees were required by Hoover to undergo a background check. Mr. Zimbalist passed his background check with ease. He subsequently spent a week in D.C., where he was interviewed by Hoover, and at the F.B.I. academy in Quantico, Virginia. Hoover and Zimbalist remained mutual admirers for the rest of Hoover’s life. Hoover would later hold Zimbalist up as an image role model for FBI employees to emulate in their personal appearance.

The Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, Inc. honored the character of Lewis Erskine in 1985 with a set of retired credentials. On June 8, 2009, then FBI Director Robert Mueller, presented Mr. Zimbalist with a plaque AS an honorary Special Agent for his work on the TV series.

Other notable people with a connection to the FBI and also share today’s birthday with Mr. Zimbalist are: G. Gordon Liddy (former FBI Agent and Watergate conspirator), who turned 87 today; Dick Clark (host of American Bandstand known as America’s oldest teenager, on whom the FBI maintained a file and conducted investigations in 1962 and 1985 into threats of violence against him), who would have turned 87 today; Abbie Hoffman (political activist who was investigated by the FBI), who would have been 81 today; Richard Crenna (actor who performed on the “This Is Your FBI” radio program) would have turned 90 today, and; Mandy Patinkin (actor who played FBI Agent Jason Gideon on the TV series “Criminal Minds”), who turned 65 today.  

         

         
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