Commentary, Guest Commentary, Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

 In this era of renamings, there’s one longstanding Arlington school whose shedding of its moniker seems lost in mists of time.

Page Elementary, at 1501 N. Lincoln St. in my boyhood neighborhood of Cherrydale, was built in 1953 during the postwar baby boom—a time when our county was bent on honoring heroes of the Confederacy.

Thomas Nelson Page (1853-1922) was a popular author who doubled as a lawyer and diplomat. Born on a Hanover County plantation, he led a thorough Old Dominion life, studying at Washington College when Robert E. Lee was its president, reading law at the University of Virginia, then practicing in Richmond. He would later work in historic preservation of such sites as the Yorktown battlefield.

His mainstream writings are hardly admirable to the modern eye. Novels like “In Ole Virginia: Marse Chan and Other Stories” and “Two Little Confederates” romanticized antebellum life under slavery. Circulated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, they featured, like the Uncle Remus stories, dialect unflattering to blacks (I found it difficult to follow) and portrayed slave owners as kind.

His 1904 book “The Negro: The Southerner’s Problem” argued that “the Negro race must either remain distinct and keep to Itself, or it must be removed to some region, whether within or without the confines of the United States, where it will be substantially separated.” And his views on lynching, though acknowledging its cruelty, admonished blacks that prevention is partially up to themselves. Page is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery.

Flash forward to January 1978. A post-baby-boom enrollment decline in Arlington schools prompted Superintendent Larry Cuban to tackle the unpleasant task of closing Page among other undersubscribed schools. Neighborhood parents protested at hearings. But other parents were concerned about what they saw as too much experimental education, pressing for a back-to-basics choice school. So Page Elementary was recast as Page Traditional.

That lasted until 1995, when the traditionalist program was slated to move to the building that had been, ahem, Stonewall Jackson Elementary at N. George Mason Dr. and Wilson Blvd. A new name was solicited. According to Washington Post coverage, 23 candidates emerged. Contenders included keeping the Page name to mean “pages of a book.” Other finalists were Betty Carol Best (for a local African-American teacher), statesman George Mason, inventor Thomas Edison, and the winner: Arlington Traditional School.

Then a twist came to the Page building. A new principal, Betty Hobbs, was recruited from Alexandria to start an elementary-level program focusing on “everything from a science perspective as much as possible,” she recently told me. The school didn’t yet have a name. But after talking with staff and families, “We decided on Science Focus, which is what we called it initially.” For the 1995-96 school year, Thomas Nelson Page was removed from the building.

Today, Page School is recalled mostly by alumni, on Facebook nostalgia sites and chats at high school reunions.

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The 68-year-old man called “arguably the greatest Little League player in county history” paid a hometown visit on Oct. 12, for the Arlington Sports Hall of Fame.

Jim Barbe was inducted at a banquet at Knights of Columbus along with former Georgetown University basketball player and later coach Craig Esherick; Washington-Lee (now Liberty) three-sport star and University of Virginia baseball hurler Harry Thomas Jr.; and Yorktown High School and University of Texas champion diver Maren Taylor.

Barbe, whom I recall as a monster-sized 11-year-old pitcher and slugger for the Vet Vans team, was later a three-sport star at W-L and baseball standout at James Madison College. He is now a normal-sized, nationally ranked pickleball champ in Arizona.

One tale he told: While a player in the Texas Rangers farm system, Barbe was in spring training in Florida when Major League Hall of Famer Ted Williams drove up in a golf cart. Barbe worked up the nerve to introduce himself, having read a biography of Williams as a kid. The game’s top hitter cut him off, saying: “You’re Barbe? You have a tremendous swing.”