Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Odd timing: During a pandemic, Arlington Public Schools appears ready to remove the name of Walter Reed from a building named for him in 1938.

That would be the Virginia-born Reed (1851-1902) who as an Army pathologist led life-saving experiments proving that deadly yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitos.

It’s a complex tale for which controversy is heating up.

The impetus comes from a shuffling of elementary school programs the school board approved last year in preparation for this fall’s opening of the building under construction in Westover alongside the Reed School.

Pay attention: The Spanish immersion program at Key School near the courthouse will move to the current site of Arlington Traditional School on N. George Mason Dr. The traditional program will move to McKinley School in Madison Manor. McKinley students (and some current Tuckahoe kids) will move into the new building on the Reed site.

On Feb. 10, a 12-member committee (representing the affected school staffs, PTAs, and civic associations) began quietly meeting to rethink names for Reed and McKinley. “There are five names the committee agreed on, and Reed is not one of them,” I’m told by APS spokesman Frank Bellavia. “The committee agreed that because multiple communities are coming together, the name needed to represent a fresh start.” A survey went out to affected families, staff and neighborhoods test-marketing five names: Cardinal, Compass, Exploration, Kaleidoscope and Passport.

(Perhaps exhausted by controversy, APS is moving away from naming schools for persons — witness Discovery Elementary — though in 2018 it changed Stratford to Dorothy Hamm Middle School. The board last week voted to rename Key “Innovation Elementary School.” I personally find the abstract names sterile. Might as well name one “Quality School.”)

Most unhappy with the state of affairs is Susan Campbell, a retired instructional designer who attended Reed in the mid-1960s. On reading an item in ARLNow, she launched a moveon.org petition on NextDoor and Facebook to preserve the Reed name (253 signatures as of Tuesday). She complains of a process not transparent and praised the “exemplary” life of bacteriologist Reed, to whom no one has objected on moral grounds. The Reed school name “is a strong and powerful brand,” she argued. “Reed in particular stands out because the success of its integration efforts gained the attention of the U.S. Department of Education” in the late 1960s, she wrote. “It has a history of welcoming students from other schools and serves as an excellent model for combining schools today.”

A similar discussion unfolded about McKinley. And though some fault President William McKinley as an imperialist, 65 percent of respondents to a survey by the McKinley PTA wish to keep the name. (Tradition, convenience.) Jon Judah, McKinley’s PTA president and speaking for himself, told me that Campbell has a point that the opaque process makes it hard for all voices to be heard. “School board members seem to prefer not to deal with names of people because they’re lightning rods,” he added. But the committee’s process “is not nefarious,” Judah said, noting that members include history professors and are “polite and helpful.” A lot is going on in America at this time, a watershed moment,” he said. “There must be a way to bring the community together.”

The board will receive final recommendations March 25 and decide on April 11.


Celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day this week did not include one long-standing tradition at Arlington House. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, beginning in 1956, have honored the site’s creator and Irish-American benefactor George Washington Parke Custis by assembling at his grave.

The practice was halted several years ago by authorities at Arlington National Cemetery. This year, I’m told by an Arlington House volunteer, a woman seeking to resume the tradition during the pandemic was denied. National Park Service spokeswoman Katie Liming confirmed that the site remains “closed due to the rehabilitation.” But “NPS looks forward to planning future events/programs at Arlington House in coordination with partners, community members and volunteers.”