Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpArlington’s heritage as an incubator of technology genius took a loss last week. I write of the sudden death of James Kimsey, co-founder of AOL (of which I remain a loyal, if out of step, subscriber).

Though America Online’s pioneering “You’ve Got Mail” offices helped create the Dulles tech corridor for Fairfax and Loudoun counties, Kimsey spent his childhood in South Arlington. (His high school years were at the Catholic Gonzaga and St. John’s College High School downtown.)

One of his mansions just up from Chain Bridge straddled the Arlington-Fairfax border – a 60,000 square-foot castle assessed at $33 million in 2012, according to Washingtonian magazine. (His smaller Fairfax property contained a guest house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.)

“He was my idol, I looked up to him,” said Judge George Varoutsos, a pall bearer at the service last Saturday, who knew Kimsey from the Georgetown bars he owned before the entrepreneur hit Internet paydirt. “He never got too big for his old friends.”

The polymath Kimsey, who died at 76 of melanoma March 1, was a West Point grad, Army Ranger in Vietnam and philanthropist to the Kennedy Center. But his contribution to AOL (originally Control Video, then Quantum Computer Services) was as chief fund-raiser for partner Steve Case.
I’m pleased that his baby – under ownership of Time Warner and later Verizon – retains its online presence.

But Kimsey is far from the only digital-age star to emerge from Arlington. Jeremy Stoppelman, the co-founder of the Yelp consumer review website, grew up in the Bellevue Forest neighborhood, I was told by proud former neighbors years ago. Created in 2004, the now-publicly traded Yelp insinuated itself into online searches for everything from restaurants to hair stylists to mechanics.

Playing video games in Arlington helped mold his techy mind, the multi-millionaire Stoppelman, 38, told the ARLNow blog last April by phone from his San Francisco office.

Stoppelman attended Taylor Elementary School, swam summers for Donaldson Run and often rode his bike to the Ballston Common Mall. He went on to graduate from Langley High School and the University of Illinois. He’s now Yelp’s CEO, while brother Michael is Yelp’s senior vice president for software engineering. “Yelpers have written more than 95 million reviews by the end of…. 2015,” their website boasts. The cinch-to-upload consumer comments can be tough, however, on merchants and small businesses.

Perhaps the largest-looming tech star in the Arlington firmament – measuring by influence, visibility and, yes, billions in wealth – is Eric Schmidt. The longtime executive chairman of Google (recently renamed Alphabet Inc., though we all still say Google) needs little introduction. The globe-trotting Princeton grad took his Ph.D. at Berkeley and became a software engineer at Sun Microsystems in time to help develop Java. Having guided Google through its exponential growth and status as a household name, he is now an adviser to the Pentagon and President Obama.

Schmidt went to Yorktown High School in my era (he was class of ’72). We inducted him in the Yorktown Hall of Fame in 2008.

Why is Arlington the spawning grounds for digital gurus, Silicon Valley East? Might it be because we’re a crossroads for the well-educated on their way up? Could it be because the Internet was actually launched here in the 1970s by the Pentagon’s research arm? There’s a sign in Rosslyn testifying so.

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Actress Shirley MacLaine fleshed out details of her Arlington girlhood Friday in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal.

Having moved here from Richmond in 1946 at age 12, the future Washington-Lee graduate (class of ’52 – the Journal got it wrong) described the family’s three-bedroom colonial (930 N. Liberty Street). Her father was a school superintendent, mother a drama teacher. She recalls taking the bus and streetcar downtown to take dancing class at the Washington School of Ballet, doing her homework en route.

MacLaine and her brother – actor Warren Beatty (W-L ’55) – had their own bedrooms. “Back then I was his protector. I was a tomboy and if anyone bothered him,” she said. “I’d keep him out of fights.”