Thursday, August 09, 2007

Mr. Walsh Goes to Washington

Michael and I are heading down to Washington this afternoon, so you probably won't see too many updates on the blog for the next couple days. Although Washington had been a place I visited quite a bit as a youngster (a lot of my mom's family migrated there from Omaha) and D.C. is where I lived from 1993-1998, my first real experience in the capital as an adult came when I was awarded the Sears Congressional Internship back in 1989. The program was unique because it was a Capitol Hill internship for journalism students -- rather than would-be lobbyists or lawyers -- that provided an "insiders" view of all things Washington. (The idea for the program was sparked by inaccuracies in the media during the Vietnam War.) Each recipient was put to work four days a week in a congressional office for a semester (I worked for Rep. Major Owens from Brooklyn) and then spent every Friday meeting up close with the people who run the city, from the Supreme Court to the Pentagon and everything in between. Owens was a tough nut to crack (he was Congress' first librarian so naturally kept his talking to me to an absolute minimum) but his staff couldn't have treated me more warmly, like Jacqueline Ellis, who called me "home boy" and suggested it might be wise for me NOT to visit the home district -- which included Crown Heights and Flatbush -- and Janice Jamison, who acted as my big sister and saw me through my various big city traumas and heartbreaks. I can still vividly recall everyone being excited when the "black" soap opera "Generations" made its big debut and how we all sat in the congressman's office and watched it together. For a kid who had grown up in suburbia, a semester living in a big city like Washington was like a dream come true.

I remember oversleeping one Friday (too many late nights at Dakota and the Lost and Found) and having to catch a bus down to the Soviet Embassy without the rest of the group, standing outside the place ringing the call box as if I were there for an AOL hookup. Another Friday we spent the afternoon with White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater when suddenly Vice President Dan Quayle walked in to invite us all to an induction ceremony that was about to begin on the South Lawn for the first-ever secretary of veterans affairs, Ed Derwinski. It was so exciting! Naturally, we weren't there to rub elbows with dignitaries so we got herded into the press line with all of the other reporters, including one Helen Thomas, who was only about 90 at the time. A few days later a friend of mine who had been taking photos at the event noticed my tiny head had been captured on the cover of the National Journal (talk about your 15 minutes seconds of fame), nearly the same photo she had taken of me, below with one of my roommates, David Vilter (where's the 300 bucks you owe for me for the phone bill, mister?!!!)

As great as the program was, of course it was the friends you made that made it really fun. I still distinctly remember walking into the Sears House on 633 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W. for the first-day reception and seeing this adorable girl with cutest smile I'd ever seen. She took one look at me and walked right over and said, "OK -- is there anyone else here worth getting to know besides you?" (Does this chick know the way to my heart or what?)

My new best friend was named Kathy Strauss, an up-and-coming photographer from San Francisco who was a few years my senior (when you're 21 and someone's 24 it seems like a lot more). The more we talked the more enamored I was. She was so worldly and political (she had gone to Nicaragua with her boyfriend to photograph the Contra War, I had hung out a lot at Fiesta Mall). It was with her that I attended my first rally -- the huge March for Women's Equality. I'd never felt like such a rebel. (That's the flyer below, along with Kathy's rear-end captured as she climbed a tree to get the perfect angle for a photo!)
I haven't spoken to Kathy in a number of years (she was convinced that I was the male version of her sister, Carolyn, and that we would totally hit it off -- and she was right), but as I was working on this post I Googled Kathy and immediately came up with this photo of her at a Bring the Troops Home Peace Rally in Olympia, Washington, where I'd heard from Carolyn that Kathy lives now. Nearly 20 years later Kath -- now married -- looks as wonderful as ever -- always the natural Jodie Foster-type of a beauty -- and her two children are (naturally) adorable and little activists in the making.

As the months went on, though, Kathy and I did come to realize there were a number of really cool people in our internship program, as well as the city at large. Keith Eby -- of Knee Deep in Mud fame -- wasn't in the same program as I was (his far less prestigious internship landed him in Senator Ted Kennedy's office), but he did live in the same tragic building (The Woodner) that I did on Upper 16th Street. Keith and I became fast friends and JR's regulars (my first Cape Cod was there, and on an intern's stipend the 75-cent price was just right). Years later someone mailed me this glamorous advertisement for The Woodner that appeared in the Washingtonian or something and I had to laugh (notice how they don't bother to picture the building itself). I'm hoping to see Keith while we're in town this weekend. Keith also ended up moving back to Washington after college and it was great living nearby in the '90s, but our friendship is mostly Web-based these days, sadly not unlike most of my friendships.

The Woodner, where roaches don't pay rent.

Trying to look congressional at a reception so we could eat free food, above. Too many drinks at the Hawk and Dove, below.

At the end of the program Kathy threw a party at her apartment and then we all went our separate ways. Over the years I kept in touch with Marianne McGuire and Amy Noble from time to time, and my other roommate, John Ralls, ended up moving to Washington, so I'd see him once in a while. But beyond that things have mostly faded away, as is often the case.

Suzanne McBride, John Ralls and I enjoy a laugh while Kathy gets serious, left. Kenneth and Kathy share a secret (and a Rolling Rock). Below left, Amy Noble and I (and someone's thumb), and me, a little too trashed with fellow Detroit native Marianne McGuire.

Getting my "diploma" from Julius Dickens, Sears communications staff assistant, below left, and Randolf Aires, vice president of Sears Corporate Governmental Affairs.

Shortly after our program ended we got notice stating that the following year's class, 1990, would be the end of the Sears Congressional Internship. The newsletter listed all of the names of the former interns -- dating all the way back to 1970, and what everyone had been doing since. I'm hoping this blog post gets circulated around and that it's able to put other former Sears interns back in touch. I know it was a life-changing experience for me, and I'm certain it was for others, too.

Caption for top photo on steps of the Capitol: Sears Intern Class of 1989, left to right: Front row: Kenneth Walsh, Lisa Dempsey, Katherine Strauss, Suzanne McBride, Jill Jesilowski, Virginia Pearson, Marlene Mehlhaff, Joy Jones (now Joy Tipping), Amy Noble, Jeffrey Slate, Grant Groww. Back row: John Ralls, Phil Rogacki, Pat Harrison, Perry Bradley, Michael Strawn, Duane Coker, Randy Brown, Derek Schmidt, Robert Balfe. Not pictured: David Vilter, Rosalie Nave, Sonya Renea Mason, Marianne McGuire.


There's not a lot of stuff about the internship program online, but I found this 1984 letter to John Heinz from Vice President Randolf H. Aires asking the senator if he would be interested in having a Sears intern in his office for the winter 1985 semester. Decided to save it before it disappears. 


Anonymous said...

What a great post! I never knew that (a) there was such a thing as this internship and, naturally, (b) that you had anything to do with it. That Kath seems like a gal after my own heart. Hope you have a great trip down.

Anonymous said...

Never seen a blogger that likes to toot his own horn quite like you.

Anonymous said...

I love politics and especially enjoy DC. Thanks for sharing your fascinating experiences. I wondered what you did, when you lived in DC. WTG getting that internship!

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, I remember seeing Kenneth on the bus in DC that took us from the Woodner to the Metro, and thinking to myself, "That Tom Cruise wanna-be looks like he could be a lot of fun." And I was right. It was good to see you and meet Michael at our home away from home, JRs, last night. You have not changed a bit, and I love you for that.

soundofstilhed said...

By any chance did you catch a performance at Studio Theatre Saturday night? My partner and I were walking past and there was a guy sort of squatting next to the building who we both would swear was you!...were you in fact that squatter? I wanted to go back and say hi and tell you how much I love the tennis photos you post...then I thought that would be too "stalker-esque"...(as if this isn't!)

Anonymous said...

>>Anonymous said...
Never seen a blogger that likes to toot his own horn quite like you.<<

Honestly, Kenneth. You should be writing about other people's life experiences on your blog -- you know, your online diary.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kenneth,
I was Joy Jones when we were interns together in the Sears Congressional Internship program; I was with Congressman Tom Bevill from Alabama.

Here’s the bizarre way I came across your blog entry about the internship. I'm at work (Im a senior copy editor at The Dallas Morning News) and we’re talking about the State of the Union. I mention how I got to actually attend one (well, the one right after someone is inaugurated, which they call something else) when I was in D.C. as an intern. That leads me to wondering … when did the Sears program go kaput? Was it 1990? 1991? So I Google "Sears Internship Program" and there you are! Amazing.

I've often wondered how everyone else from that group was doing; I even lost touch over the years with my roomies. I finished school at the University of North Texas , then went to work for a small suburban paper, the Richardson News (Dallas suburb), where I covered lifestyles and got to interview lots of celebrities. Then I wrote two "literary travel" books as Joy Dickinson (my mother’s maiden name, which I changed mine to legally -- long story), "Haunted City," a guide to New Orleans for Anne Rice fans, and "Scarlett Slept Here: A Book Lover’s Guide to the South." Both still in print, courtesy of Amazon.

I started at the DMN in 1996 as an assistant national editor, then became a reporter in metro, then moved to Sarasota, Florida, and later Albuquerque, New Mexico. I freelanced full-time for about eight years, which was fun but harrowing. I got married in 2003 and have three fabulous stepsons, who are now 17, 19 and 21 (HOW did I get this OLD????). We moved back to Dallas last year and now I'm back at the DMN, happily ensconced on the lifestyles copy desk. I still do a lot of writing, mostly concert, theater and book reviews, along with the occasional news feature. And I still get to "go political" occasionally, filling in on the national and international desks. I suspect I'll be doing a lot more of that as the year passes.

Let me know what you’re up to! It was really great to see you online.

Anonymous said...

I was a Sears intern back in 1981. I remember not being sure I wanted to work in Washington once Reagan won the election. But it was a life-changing experience in many ways. I hope someone is still doing something similar.