Each spring, the Capitol Hill Community Foundation recognizes individuals who have – in all sorts of different ways — made our neighborhood a more vibrant, dynamic, caring and just plain fun place to live. This year’s Community Achievement Awards go to Bernadette and Jim McMahon, Pearl and Joel Bailes. The Reverend Cara Spaccarelli will be honored with the Steve Cymrot Spark Award.
For the past sixteen years, Bernadette and Jim McMahon have been the volunteer day to day managers taking the Capitol Hill Community Foundation’s Ruth Ann Overbeck Oral History project from an idea to a reality. They have worked with program director John Franzen (Community Achievement honoree in 2017), recruiting and training volunteer interviewers and transcribers, soliciting suggestions of residents whose stories should be part of the archive, maintaining recording equipment and researching ways to improve it and make it easier to use. Thanks to their effort almost 200 stories of life on Capitol Hill have been recorded and are easily accessible to the public via the project’s website. Their patience and thoroughness are well known to the many people with whom they have worked.
Both Bernadette and Jim came to Washington, DC, as so many people do, for government jobs. Bernadette was a 21 year old chemistry major from upstate New York when she came here for a clerical job with the American Chemical Society. Her work was in Southwest and Capitol Hill was the obvious place to live, her first apartment, a “quirky” little place facing grass and trees where the Madison Building of the Library of Congress now stands that rented for $95 a month. Jim was a city boy, from Brooklyn, New York who came to D.C. as a naval officer stationed at the Navy Yard, also attending Catholic University Law School at night. By the time he met Bernadette (at a party in Georgetown) he was an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission, preparing and processing cases involving fraudulent business practices. On a blizzardy day in February 1971 they were married at St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Second Street Southeast.
In the years since then, Jim and Bernadette have had long careers with the federal government — she at the FDA, where she was for many years editor of the department’s Pesticide Analytical Manual, he in a variety of positions including as a contracting officer in risk analysis with the CIA. They have raised two sons, Joe and Kevin, and done all the activities that go with that – coaching soccer, organizing school fund-raising auctions, managing Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts. Jim particularly relished counseling scouts on the many merit badges they could earn while Bernadette edited the Scouts newsletter. She (along with 2010 Community Achievement Award winner Margaret Miaissen) tended the garden at St. Peter’s church while Jim served on the Parish Council. When they moved from their longtime house on 7th Street Northeast to a light-filled apartment in the renovated Bryan School, Jim took on the job of president of the Condo Association, working to ensure that the by-laws are up to date, foreseeing expenses and, as he says, constantly “separating carping from real complaints.”
Of the Overbeck project Bernadette says, “It appealed to me right away.” When she reads the newspaper, she says, “I like local and I like individuals.” Jim loves history of all kinds – another of his volunteer jobs is as a docent at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Right from the start it was a happy fit and there is no sign that will end any time soon.
By day Pearl Bailes is a longtime fourth grade teacher at Capitol Hill Day School and Joel Bailes is a technician at the Library of Congress. By night, by weekend, and by warm holiday afternoon they are – together — the Capitol Hillbillies, Joel singing and banging out tunes on Rollo, the Rolling Piano while Pearl alternately sings and plays the harmonica. Sometimes their son Brendan joins them on the guitar. You have probably heard them while strolling down East Capitol Street on a summer Sunday or a Halloween evening, while shopping at Eastern Market, in Garfield Park playing for the back to school picnic at Capitol Hill Day or at any number of small venues around town. If you are a musician, you might have joined them to play a few tunes. Their music is happily eclectic and offered free to passersby.
Pearl and Joel met as freshmen at the appropriately named New College in Sarasota Florida, now part of the Florida state system but then a proudly experimental and very small school where they were among just a handful of Jewish students. Early in the school year the High Holy days brought them together. Later, when Joel and his roommates turned their dorm room into an illicit bar selling beer for 25 cents a glass Pearl staged a protest because they wouldn’t admit women. By senior year they were engaged – instead of a ring Joel gave Pearl a banjo. After a stint of living and playing music in Ireland Pearl and Joel came back to the States. They shared life on a farm in Virginia with another couple, raising chickens and goats, tending a huge garden, canning a lot of tomatoes. Pearl went back to school for a Master’s degree in early childhood education and for a time Joel studied Hebrew literature and language at the now defunct Dropsie College in Philadelphia. By the early 80s the friends they had lived with on the farm were moving to Washington, DC for a clerkship with a Supreme Court justice and they invited Pearl and Joel to share a house with them. After a year their friends moved away but the Baileses were hooked. They found that they loved everything about the neighborhood and the city from the Capitol Hill babysitting coop (by then they had two young children, Alana and Brendan) to the tolerant attitude towards street musicians of the cops across town.
Having started as a busker playing his fiddle on the sidewalk in Georgetown, Joel really hit his stride when he finally located an all-terrain dolly that allowed him to take his piano (the only thing he ever went into debt to purchase) out and about. Both Baileses go to music camp every summer in West Virginia so they are constantly expanding their musical offerings. It was at a workshop there that Pearl first saw and appreciated “the vast world of the harmonica.”
In 1988, when Pearl was offered a job teaching 4th grade at Capitol Hill Day School she took it thinking that after a year or two something would open up in kindergarten and she would move back to early childhood education, her true love. To her surprise, she found a great fit with older children. “Fourth graders are a lot like kindergartners,” she says. “They like who they are.” Some 600 young people have now benefited from 4th grade with Pearl. There’s no way to count the number of folks of all ages who have been delighted by the music she and Joel so joyously share.
In July of 2010 a new priest moved into the rectory at Christ Church on G Street Southeast bringing an exuberant youthful presence to the oldest Episcopal parish in the city of Washington. Christ Church was founded in 1795; its present building was dedicated in 1809. Thomas Jefferson attended services there. When Cara Spaccarelli took over as the church’s 28th rector she was just thirty, a wife, and the mother of two little boys, one a 2 month old infant. Since then, she and her family have become thoroughly engaged in the life of the community and brought a new vibrancy to their historic church.
Cara grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, the daughter of a Catholic father, a doctor, and a Methodist mother, who had been a nurse and social worker. Like many couples from different backgrounds, they found a congenial place to raise their family in the Episcopal Church and from an early age Cara was engaged, participating in youth activities organized by the Diocese and attending weekly Bible study. Her spirituality was further fostered at the Catholic high school she attended. She went to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota majoring in American Studies and planning on becoming a social worker.
Two important things happened at the Diocesan Youth Camp in southern Ohio where Cara worked summers during college – there she met Michael Lawyer, a Minnesotan and “cradle” Episcopalian who became her husband, and there she felt a call to the priesthood, to “shaping opportunities for people to find and see God in the world.” Cara attended the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, enjoying immersion in Southern culture and the Spanish-language ministry to the Latino community there. Then Michael went to law school at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis while Cara held a “wonderful” job at St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral there, re-imagining outreach ministries and designing programs for adults. They loved Minnesota but Michael, who had been working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development through the presidential management fellows program, felt that “to do anything interesting” in that field he had to move to Washington. Cara was enjoying her work at the cathedral but decided to just see what might be available in DC. To her surprise, there was a job opening at Christ Church that sounded perfect. Right from the start it seemed like a good fit.
Cara saw her main challenge as making sure that the parish had a future – that the young people who dropped in to visit came back and got involved, that the Sunday school program responded to growing numbers of young children, that older, long-time members felt cared for and valued. But she knew it was also important to engage members with both social outreach and opportunities for deeper spiritual experience. Now, working with an associate rector, Serena Sides, Cara has encouraged small discussion groups for young adults on a series of topics, formed a book group, introduced the monthly “Laundry Love” outreach ministry, created monthly children’s worship services with informal dinners afterwards. She also led the church through a Capital Campaign that raised $970,000 for modifications to the parish hall to accommodate the steadily expanding Sunday school and youth ministry.
Cara and Michael are active parents at Brent Elementary school where their sons, Riley and Aden, are students; they have both coached with Soccer on the Hill. They have also welcomed foster children into their home for periods from one to six weeks as part of DC 127, a program that supports foster parents by offering alternative care for the children while they get much needed periods of respite. And sometimes the activities Cara encourages at church become neighborhood occasions – like the summertime “grill and chill” evenings on the front lawn where neighbors and parishioners can gather for food and talk while their children play on a slip and slide.
In the spirit of the late Steve Cymrot, Cara has brought originality and vitality to her life and work on Capitol Hill and given off sparks of inspiration and encouragement to others.
Bernadette and Jim McMahon, Pearl and Joel Bailes, and Cara Spaccarelli will be honored and their contributions to our community celebrated at a gala fundraising dinner at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Thursday, April 26. For information about the dinner please contact Nancy Lazear ([email protected]) or visit the website CapitolHIllCommunityFoundation.org.