Capital Letter

A newsLETTER blog about life for Sarah, Stephen and Alexandria Padre in Our Nation's Capital

Jun 17, 2012

Crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge at sunset

We spent a long weekend (Thursday through Saturday) at the beach on the Atlantic Ocean in Wildwood, New Jersey, midway between Cape May and Atlantic City, which are on the very southern tip of the state. To get there, we decided to take the route through Delaware. First, however, you go through Annapolis, Maryland, and then cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. We crossed this bridge on our way home at sunset. Here was our view.

Apr 22, 2012

The D.C. fly-over of Space Shuttle Discovery

First fly-over

Second fly-over

Third fly-over

Mar 6, 2012

Sept. 11 memorial

This is the Sept. 11 memorial at ground zero in New York City. We visited it over the weekend.

The last time I had been there was Sept. 18, 2011, just a week after the terrorist attacks. I flew there from Chicago and got to go all the way "to the fence," the closest anybody who wasn't a rescue worker could get those days. As part of my job as the ELCA's disaster communicator, I flew there that week with the ELCA's Presiding Bishop, H. George Anderson, and a few other ELCA staffers to cover the ELCA's response to the terrorist attacks and to show our solidarity with the people of New York City.

OK, actually, the last time I had been there was a little over ten years ago, a few months after the terrorist attacks that year. I had just asked Sarah to marry me while we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, and from there, we proceeded to ground zero.

Feb 12, 2012

D.C.'s most bizarre "museum"

On my birthday, which was last Thursday, I took the day off, and so did Sarah. We took the girls to daycare and school as usual so we could have the day to ourselves.

One thing we had wanted to do for a while was tour the Mansion on O Street. This is another unknown D.C. landmark that we’ve discovered since living here (but for the Hovicks, not the sort of place that Ingrid would have taken you). I had heard about it through a Groupon, so, since it was cheap, we decided to try it.

It’s a bizarre place. It’s near Dupont Circle and is four or five typical, historical row houses (the type that are more than 100 years old) on a street that are connected. They say they’re a combination hotel/event venue/museum. I’d say that the entire place – every room – is also an antique store.

So you show up at your scheduled tour time (you book a time yourself and buy a ticket), and the “butler” meets you at the door, which is locked. You are checked in, given a glass of champagne, and then told you’ve got free reign of the place, only you aren’t allowed to go in any doors that are closed (that have a “Do not disturb” sign on them) because they are occupied hotel rooms. So it’s a self-guided tour, and you can wander around these houses at your own pace. Many of the hotel (sleeping) rooms were open, so we could go inside them, and each had a large bed, a large bathroom (most of them had strange things like a bidet, a multi-head massaging shower, a Jacuzzi tub, etc.), a large closet, and a kitchenette. Most of the sleeping rooms had themes, like the country room or one room that was a country lodge/log cabin (it was the best one because it had a loft above the bed where there was a kitchenette on one side of a cozy den area). On the ground floor were reception/dining rooms and a bar. It seems they host office or holiday parties or wedding receptions there. There is a wine cellar in the basement where you can have a private dinner party – it’s a cozy place. Some rooms are general gathering rooms/living rooms, like the billiard room, or a sitting room.

But the d├ęcor – picture this: Every square inch of the walls is covered by large paintings or floor-to-ceiling bookshelves with used books or other shelves or ledges covered by knick-knacks. And it’s all for sale! The butler tells you that you can buy anything in the house except the signed guitars (signed by famous musicians). So imagine going to an enormous junk store in an old house where you have to wander through many, many rooms. We didn’t buy anything – it’s all old and junky.

The catch, or the gimmick, with the place when you tour it is that there are secret passageways –30-some of them. They tell you that if you can find two or three of them, you’re doing extremely well. We found about five (we had seen another touring party go through one near the entrance). They tend to be full-length mirrors with no handles. It’s confusing enough with the several stairways that wind up and down the houses.

So there are a variety of ways they can get you in this place – to visit and stay as an out-of-town guest, to tour the place as a “museum,” to come shop at the place (they have holiday shopping events and the like), or to come for a scheduled event, like a meal, although you can go on the weekends for brunch or high tea.

So don’t be surprised if you want to come visit us in D.C. and we tell you that instead of staying with us at our house, we’re going to book you in a hotel. My plan is then to leave it at that – not tell you anything about this hotel. You’d see right away when you check in that it’s a bizarre place. You’d have a terrible time finding your room, so once you get there, you’d stay inside it for the night. Then you’d wake up for breakfast in the morning and then have to find your way to the breakfast room. And while inside, you’d just go crazy from all of the junk that is packed into every room.

Apr 6, 2011

Article I wrote for my organization's magazine

If anybody is still out there and paying attention to this blog, I thought I would share an article I wrote for my organization's magazine (which I am also the editor of). This article shows not only my work and what I do these days (writing articles and editing a magazine, among other communications tasks) but shows the work of my organization - what type of work it does. This article also serves as a bit of a travel journal, telling you about a memorable work trip I took last fall to Mississippi, my first non-tourist trip to the "real" Deep South and my first time in that state.

Like a phoenix from ashes, a town rises from a hurricane’s flood

Mississippi community destroyed by water uses water to rebuild itself

By Stephen Padre

Down in the bayou, along the Gulf Coast, sits the small town of Pearlington, Miss. Moss hangs low from the mighty oak trees in the quiet, still air. The town’s sleepiness today belies what it has been through in the past several years. Part of its quietness is the result of the town losing many of its residents, not by choice but by force of extraordinary circumstances.

Pearlington is one of those places that defines itself by a major event. For this town, it was Hurricane Katrina, which hit the U.S. Gulf Coast in late August 2005 and became the costliest natural disaster in American history. Little Pearlington, sitting on a remote corner of Mississippi’s short panhandle, was slammed by the enormous hurricane. But like other small communities on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, Pearlington was overlooked and forgotten as the nation’s attention focused on the crisis unfolding in New Orleans, less than 40 miles away. Surrounded by major bodies of water—the Gulf of Mexico, Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain, and a river on one side—the town was flooded and nearly destroyed by Katrina.

Today, Pearlington’s residents speak of the time before Katrina and the time after Katrina. The hurricane did its damage through water. The sea came inland and swept houses away or left debris on property, leaving it uninhabitable.

But the town has another history, both before and after Katrina, that is also all about water. For two periods of a few years before the hurricane and since then, Pearlington has been receiving assistance from Community Resource Group, the Southern RCAP, as the town works to construct new drinking water and wastewater systems.

“I never thought I would spend my entire career [with RCAP] working with this community,” said Tom Johnson, the Senior Operations Management Specialist for CRG who has worked with Pearlington’s leaders for more than 14 years.

This is an unusually long lifecycle for an RCAP project in a community. Most technical assistance providers like Johnson spend three to five years providing technical, managerial or financial assistance for a system before moving on to help other communities in need.

Pearlington’s leaders first contacted CRG in late 1997 because it had an inadequate wastewater collection or disposal system. Many homes were discharging raw sewage directly into the Pearl River or various bayous. The state Department of Environmental Quality had sampled various sites in the area and found the water of the river and bayous contained high levels of fecal coliform bacteria.

From 1997 to 2000, and starting again in May 2005, Johnson worked with leaders to create a water district and secure funding from various sources to install a sewer system. While the area had functioning water wells, it was decided to also install a drinking water system. By July 2005, the district had a fully designed sewer system ready for bids from contractors as well as enough funding from several sources to get the project started.

Then Katrina hit.

Five years later, as Betty Baxter sat near where her home once stood, her eyes welled up with tears as she recounted how Katrina destroyed houses and devastated Pearlington. After she talked about the frightening days of flooding following the storm, she drove visitors around town in her car and stopped at her property. Now it is just an empty lot after the house she and her husband had lived in was razed because it was too damaged in the flooding to rebuild. Only the enormous, moss-draped oak trees sit peacefully around what Baxter said was her living room and dining room.

Tom Johnson and Betty Baxter

“People lost everything they had—everything, except what they had on their backs,” she said.

Baxter was not alone in what she suffered. Prior to the hurricane, there were 871 homes and buildings in Pearlington. Katrina destroyed more than 700 of them and heavily damaged the others.

Baxter is currently the secretary of the water district and since Katrina has taken a key leadership role in pushing for completion of the water and sewer systems. She is 73, and her husband is 80. Since Katrina, they have lived 30 miles away from the coast. She knows they must make a choice. They can return to Pearlington and rebuild their house and their life there, but they are getting too old to start over again. Or they can remain where they are.

Baxter has invested too much time and effort in the water system through her service on the district’s board to leave her work now. She wants to see her town get its water system so it can continue to build itself up from the devastation of Katrina.

“I’m not a quitter. I feel like I am obliged to stick it out and see that they get a water and sewer system,” she said. “I live in Picayune, but my heart is here.”

Johnson said Katrina set the town’s work on its water systems back years. But he has continued his work with the town as well.

“We don’t know where we would have been without Tom,” said Baxter.

As a result of the hurricane, most of the funding that had been lined up with Johnson’s help for Pearlington’s project disappeared. Mississippi’s governor diverted grant funds to rebuild the infrastructure on the coast. Pearlington’s water district had already spent more than $800,000 on designs, easements and other preparations for its water system.

The district had hoped to obtain enough of the post-disaster rebuilding funds as grants to complete its project, but this did not happen. So the district is applying for a $1.5 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture-Rural Development to finish the work.

Nevertheless, 14 years later, the system is beginning to operate, and CRG, through Johnson, will work with the system until all construction ends and the system’s daily operation is running smoothly. Customers’ homes were being hooked up weekly to the system late last year.

“This is truly an example of where CRG/RCAP has worked from the start until today with a project helping them form [a district], secure funding, write manuals and procedures, and everything else,” said Johnson. “I feel that in the last 14 years I have been required to use all the experience I had prior plus educate myself and learn many other things to get this system to where it is.”

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Pearlington hopes to pull itself out of the flood waters of Hurricane Katrina. In addition to installing a new water system, one way it is doing this is with the establishment of a community center. The building was built by a charity as a gift to the town. Betty Baxter, the secretary of the water district, stands by the center’s dedication plaque.

Padre is RCAP’s Director of Communications and editor of Rural Matters. He visited Pearlington in October 2010.

Aug 14, 2010

Bulletin for the memorial service of Lora Padre (Stephen's sister)

Bulletin for the memorial service of Lora Padre

Apr 27, 2010

Update on recent happenings

Rotary Club lunch

Last week I attended the weekly lunch meeting of the Rotary Club that meets up 16th St. a couple of blocks from my office at the University Club. I was investigating hosting an exchange student - if this club brings any foreign students over – and the president of the club had invited me to attend a lunch meeting as his guest so we could meet. My initial contact was made, and that business was taken care of, but I was also thrilled to get inside this exclusive club, which is essentially the in-city “athletic club” or “country club” (without the outdoor parts like tennis courts, pool or golf course).

Well, there wasn’t anything unique inside, at least the parts that I saw – nothing private or exclusive or new to me. It was all just very fancy and upscale. There were many wood-paneled rooms – the various bars and restaurants in the place. Certainly the bathroom had some extra amenities. You could use some mouthwash or a comb or polish your shoes with their little machine. The room the lunch was held in was on the second floor and was like a fancy hotel ballroom set up with round tables and a buffet table at the back – like any banquet at a hotel that you would attend. The source of arrogance for this place isn’t its location (on the water or in an exclusive suburb), but its location. I’m sure many of the city’s powerful businessmen, lobbyists and government workers frequent this place, which is just a few blocks from the White House, although I walk past it regularly and have rarely seen anybody well-known outside (I did pass Tom Ridge nearby one day on my way to work).

Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens

A couple of weekends ago, we took a few hours on a windy but sunny Saturday afternoon to visit the former estate of Marjorie Merriweather Post, which is just a few miles from our house, but which we had not really known about from living here (another hidden gem in the city; ask us about what we’ve discovered when you visit). Post was married and divorced about four times, and some of her husbands were wealthy and/or powerful, and she was also the heiress of C.W. Post of the Post cereal company, which later became General Foods. As a wealthy socialite, she purchased an estate here and set about collecting art – mostly Russian and French – and keeping a lavish garden, all the while entertaining famous guests.

Pictures of our visit are posted here.

All of our photos were taken outside, and most are of the gardens. We visited at exactly the right time for the gardens, which were in full bloom. I don’t think I’ve visited a private garden that had so many flowering plants before. It was simply spectacular. We were not allowed to take photos inside the mansion, which was Post’s house but is now a veritable museum. She expanded the house and added a lot of rooms here and there, many of which were just to show off her various art collections. There was about as much practical living space as there was space for the art and entertaining, like the “pavilion,” which was for showing movies and holding ballroom dances.

The mansion/museum was a bit familiar to us, since it was very much like a palace in Europe, of which we have seen many, only on a smaller scale. Honestly, I don’t know what was more spectacular – the house or gardens. For a private, little-known house-museum, it has something rare: Its centerpieces are a small handful of pieces by Faberge, including two of his famous eggs. The “surprises” in them (when you open them) have been long lost, however. There were several important portraits of Russian royalty throughout the house, and the grand piano in one of the sitting rooms had pictures of people she would entertain regularly. I spotted a framed picture of John and Jackie Kennedy at the end of the piano.

Drama on our block

Yesterday I had left the office at my earlier time, at 5:00. Sarah and Lexi were still not home from their weekend away, but were on their way home. As I approached the intersection where our house is, I crossed one street as usual and heard a fire truck approaching. I looked down the block and saw that it was coming toward me. I didn’t think this was a big deal, since we hear sirens all the time, sometimes even on our street – mostly police cars flying past. I expected it to continue down the street past our house. But then, as I crossed the other street in front of our house, I happened to look down another street and thought it looked foggy. It was odd, I thought, but then remembered that it had been a drizzly day with rain off and on since the night before. But then suddenly I connected the two – the fire truck and what was actually smoke! By then I had crossed in front of the fire truck, which had pulled up across the street but close to our house. A house across the street from our and a few doors down was on fire! I had arrived at precisely the right moment as the first fire truck arrived.

I went in the yard at the end of our house and watched all the fire fighters arrive and as all the other neighbors were coming out of their houses to see what was going on. Some were running out as the smoke billowed up from the roof in the back of a house. More fire trucks arrived, and at the peak of it all, there were a total of eight trucks occupying more than two blocks of the neighborhood, plus other police and fire vehicles and an ambulance at one point.

The trouble with this fire was that it was smack in the middle of an entire long block of row houses, and one could easily see that if they didn’t put it out soon, it would easily spread. So some policemen were going door to door and telling residents to get out. I saw them do this to one house, and the woman seemed unusually calm and left her house with her dog on a leash like she was going to take the dog for a walk anyway. I would have been quite concerned that my house was also going to go up in flames. Yes, I would have taken the dog, but certainly I would have left in a bigger hurry and would have been more visibly concerned. As it happened, the fire did spread to one adjacent house, and fire fighters were scrambling from all sides, breaking windows in the front second story windows to get in and accessing both houses from the roof with two ladder trucks.

One fire truck was there until about 9:00 last night – about three hours total. Today the two houses are boarded up. This was a big reminder of the dangers that we face – from the wiring I did when I installed new lighting fixtures in our dining room and entryway (did I do it correctly?) to living in a row house, where a fire in your neighbor’s house could mean certain destruction in your own house.