Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Old-school-tie emotions ran high at the Arlington Committee of 100’s examination of the pending question: Should the name of Washington-Lee High School be changed?

School Board chairman Barbara Kanninen had put the national-turned-local issue in play after last August’s racial violence in Charlottesville following that city’s plans to remove a statue of Arlington’s own Robert E. Lee.

The Dec. 13 talk from the three panelists and an eager audience was civil and informative. I detected a potential values gap between current students and W-L’s intensely loyal alumni.

The stage was set with practical advice from Campbell Palmer, a parent and athletics fund-raiser for Fairfax County’s J.E.B. Stuart High School, recently renamed Justice High. Mistakes during Stuart’s renaming process “created divisiveness and pain,” he noted. He described a community vote that was held but disregarded by the school board, and unauthoritative cost estimates.

“The Internet is not your friend — you will not persuade or change anyone’s opinion by listserv,” Palmer said. Whoever is assigned to gauge costs (eventually over $400,000) should be believed, he said, and once an authority is tapped to make the final decision, stick to it. “Be nice, it’s just a name,” he added. “Whatever relationships you have with friends and neighbors will go on.”

In favor of removing Lee’s name from W-L was Michael Beer, a Maywood parent and co-chair of the civic federation’s schools committee. “Hateful and damaging names should be changed as soon as possible to put the needs of children first,” he said. “Stamping out racial supremacy” can also be “a wonderful opportunity to bring people together.”

Beer would go further. He’d remove Confederate or plantation names from Arlington streets and neighborhoods– Bedford, Hancock, Jefferson Davis, Stuart, Bryan, Dinwiddie, Stafford, Stratford, Leeway, Overlee, Tara and Randolph. “You don’t need a statue to understand Lee, you need a book,” Beer quoted. He dismissed portrayals of the Confederacy’s top general as a flawed but exceptional American.

(George Washington, Beer acknowledged, is more complicated, but “not original” — he cited 88 place names, 55 counties, and 12 colleges named for the father of our country.)

Representing W-L’s 40,000 alumni and arguing for keeping the name was “unofficial school historian” John Peck, class of ’96. Displaying an historical timeline, he cited the school’s reputation among the nation’s finest, listing accomplishments in academics, sports and wartime sacrifice.

Peck rejected the assertion that W-L was named in 1925 with help from the KKK, citing longtime inclusion of foreign-born students.

“I don’t even think of the name” when admiring W-L’s attributes, Peck said, adding that he wouldn’t mind if Lee’s profile came off the logo. “The portraits mean nothing, it’s the legacy.”
Audience members asked for agreement that a school’s name can offend—“imagine a Harvey Weinstein High School.” But another, who brought yearbooks, said she always believed that after the tragedy of the Civil War, W-L’s `blue and gray’ theme “brought us together.”
W-L senior Malcolm Douglass, who favors changing the name, told me students are “now more willing to have the conversation.” They are starting a petition.

Past records show that two elementary schools in recent decades were renamed for a new mission with scant controversy—Thomas Nelson Page became Science Focus, and Stonewall Jackson became Arlington Traditional School.

If the W-L name were to go, I suspect it would not go as quietly.

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A roster of Arlington’s top philanthropists gathered Dec. 12 for the ribbon cutting of the new gym/wellness center at the discreet Ballston location of the renovated Phoenix House Mid-Atlantic.

The addiction treatment center, which has Arlington roots going back six decades, celebrated completion of a $3.5 million campaign by giving guests a rare public tour of the men’s residential therapy rooms and classrooms.

Names on plaques – Hitt, Buck, Morgan, Reinsch – credit those who donated most to help the staff of 101 treat 1,900 clients a year who battle opioids, heroin and alcohol dependency.

“Physical exercise,” one recovering client told the audience, “is one of the most underutilized antidepressants.”