With debate still percolating over whether to rename Washington-Lee High School, I couldn’t help but notice an influx of anecdotes about the county’s oldest secondary school that recently came my way.
They’re mostly tokens of affection for the school’s uniqueness. But I take them as a sign that if the now-official Arlington Public Schools process — set in motion after last August’s racial confrontation over a Confederate statue in Charlottesville — ends up next winter with a name change, many alumni feelings will be scarred.
Lennie Cuje, a German refugee who graduated from W-L in 1952 and has publicly opposed a name change, told me his jazz combo once played backup for a modern dance performed by a classmate Shirley MacLaine. The phonograph had broken, so his musicians had to plunge in unrehearsed on a rendering of “Slaughter on 10th Avenue.” They botched it. When MacLaine later came to a reunion as a famous actress, she hadn’t forgiven them.
An alum from the 1950s showed me his W-L photo collection, including the crew stars who won the famous London Henley Regatta in 1964. A humorous shot shows football fans in the bleachers holding the traditional banner reading “W-L Will Shine…” But a second sign below adds….“Wakefield’s shoes.”
Perhaps the most serious missive came from Ed Hummer, W-L ’63, the basketball star who went on to play at Princeton. In December, he sent the school and county boards a 24-page letter opposing a name change.
Alternating between scholarly analysis and personal history, Hummer described his experiences during the groundbreaking integration of Stratford Junior High. He included a W-L football program from 1962, pointing out the first black players.
Hummer did a credible job gauging the complex character of homeboy Robert E. Lee, painting him as a man of his time, but one who, on moral questions of patriotism and racism, fell short compared with Abraham Lincoln.
As an alternative to erasing W-L’s 93-year-old name, Hummer suggested keeping it as a learning tool and naming the coming new high school for William Harvey Carney, a Virginia slave who became a Civil War Medal of Honor winner.
But if Arlington renames W-L, “I think almost anyone can foresee greatly adverse consequences arising with the inexorability of a Greek tragedy,” he wrote. “The resistance from the large and influential Washington-Lee alumni base can be expected to be ferocious. Reaction among the families in the area will also be negative.”
Last week, I chatted with school board Chair Barbara Kanninen, who takes no public position on W-L’s name but has labored for months to put the county through a good process. Focus groups last fall showed that “people on both sides of the question wanted to tackle it, clearly a community filled with people with different opinions,” she said. “So staff said let’s continue.”
A timeline calls for integrating the question with a clarification of APS’s general criteria for school naming — in time to name five new schools or programs by 2019. This fall, citizens can expect a blue-ribbon panel to offer advice on W-L’s name.
True, Kanninen acknowledged, the moment of truth would come after the November elections (she is unopposed). But “there is no election season in Arlington anymore,” she said. “You start campaigning the day after an election, and the school board is always accountable to the public.”
Leave it to Arlington to run a training program for citizen gadflies, er, leaders.
The county-sponsored “Neighborhood College” project since 2000 has churned out 400 organizers. Twenty-five volunteers go through eight-weeks of Thursday evening supper-classes on topics ranging from county departments to community networking.
County Board Chair Katie Cristol, a graduate, calls the college “a terrific, and fun, way to quickly get up to speed” on county institutions. “Each class represents a true cross-section of our county’s incredible generational and demographic diversity.” Registration on the county website ends March 18.