It’s a rite of springtime in our neighborhood ‒ the festive evening dedicated to bestowing Capitol Hill Community Achievement Awards and raising funds for the Capitol Hill Community Foundation. Held for many years in the magnificent Great Hall of the Folger Shakespeare Library, and then via Zoom during Covid, the awards reception and ceremony last year took place in the garden courtyard and nave of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church at the corner of 3rd and A streets SE.
This spring, on Tuesday May 23, St. Mark’s will again be the venue for the awards ceremony. Honorees are Kenn Allen and Maureen Shea, Bill Press and James Perry.
Kenn Allen and Maureen Shea
St. Mark’s is a particularly appropriate place to honor Allen and Shea, longtime members of the parish whose contributions there and elsewhere on Capitol Hill are almost too numerous to count. In 1980, newly married to Allen and living on Capitol Hill, Shea was intrigued by what she read about St. Mark’s in a memoir by Harry McPherson. He had been special counsel to President Lyndon Johnson and a one-time St. Mark’s senior warden, remembered for having brought the new president to church the Sunday after the Kennedy assassination.
Shea thought the church’s emphasis on welcoming people from a variety of faith traditions, combined with a strong appreciation for the arts, sounded interesting. She and Allen became members and found a house just two blocks from St. Mark’s, where they have lived for 30 years.
Being close to the church was helpful in 2009 when Allen, still working full time as founder and president of the Civil Society Consulting Group, became senior warden, the elected lay leader of the parish. While his work promoting volunteerism and civic engagement was taking him to 35 overseas destinations, his time at home was taken up with church concerns.
Under his guidance, St. Mark’s undertook a major assessment of its 130-year-old Romanesque and Gothic revival building and initiated a “dreaming” process about how best to ensure its viability for years to come. The process led to a major renovation of the building’s undercroft and parish hall, repairs and long-deferred maintenance to its brick bell tower and stained-glass windows (which include a large one made by Tiffany), with a great deal of fundraising.
Allen provided leadership and a vision of St. Mark’s as a resource not just for its members but for the entire Capitol Hill community. He notes with pride that the nave is the largest indoor space available for events on Capitol Hill and has hosted school auctions, concerts and plays and events such as the annual National Vigil for All Victims of Gun Violence, attended by hundreds of anti-gun violence activists and this year by President Biden. Allen has also been a longtime board member of Everyone Home DC, formerly the Capitol Hill Group Ministry, an organization dedicated to meeting the needs of individuals and families experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
Shea, who retired in 2009 as director of government relations for the Episcopal Church, has made a specialty of hospitality. From organizing a long-standing and much-loved summer block party on A Street to being the force behind Friday-night dinners out for neighbors, to hosting a black-tie dinner at the East Capitol Street diner Jimmy T’s to celebrate the Clinton inauguration in 1993, to weekly Zoom calls during Covid and last-minute invitations for friends to gather on her front steps with glasses of wine, she is an imaginative creator of opportunities for people to get together and share food and fellowship.
As a driver for Food Rescue DC she has embraced the chance to serve temporarily homeless neighbors and refugees, taking leftover and donated food to various shelters, and co-chaired St. Mark’s outreach to Afghan refugees via participation in Good Neighbors Capitol Hill.
She reflects that, while occasionally annoyed by her many trips to Costco for supplies, she actually loves it. “On Sunday mornings,” she says, “you look around, you see people talking and enjoying each other, kids having fun, and you realize that, yes, it is worth it.”
When political commentator Bill Press moved from California to Washington in 1996 to take a job as one of the hosts of CNN’s nightly “Crossfire” debate program, he and his wife Carol got lots of advice about where they should live. Kalorama in Northwest DC, Potomac, Maryland, and McLean, Virginia, were mentioned as desirable neighborhoods. They also had friends on Capitol Hill, and once they visited they knew where they wanted to be. They still have a house in California and return to visit their two sons and families, but Southeast is now definitely home.
Press notes that you couldn’t be on the Hill for long and escape the notice of Nicky Cymrot and her late husband, Steve, founders of the Capitol Hill Community Foundation. They shared with him their dream of turning the rundown Old Naval Hospital building on Pennsylvania Avenue into a community center offering a wide variety of stimulating programs, an idea Press immediately liked.
As the Hill Center became a reality, Press suggested a series of talks between him and guests, with the public invited to join the conversation. “Talk of the Hill” made its debut in 2012, with a live conversation at Hill Center between Press and Brian Lamb, founder of C-SPAN, with a hundred members of the public in attendance. Since then, Press has sat down with political figures – Sen. Bernie Sanders, the late Rep. John Lewis, Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer and many others. He’s talked to fellow writers and journalists like Peter Baker, Norm Ornstein and David Brooks, and also to chefs. He fondly remembers that during Covid he interviewed cookbook author Ina Garten from his own kitchen with her “ultimate beef stew” burbling on the stove behind him. Following restaurateur Alice Waters’ appearance at Hill Center, he and Carol took her to dinner at Rose’s Luxury, which she loved.
In all these talks – over 60 in more than 10 years – Press says his goal has been twofold. He wants to give Capitol Hill residents the opportunity to be in conversation with interesting and influential political and cultural leaders. But he wants as well to show his guests that Capitol Hill is, as he says, “more than a collection of government buildings. It’s a vibrant, colorful, active, diverse, warm and welcoming residential community with some great, well-informed and dedicated residents.”
The “Spark” Award, named for Steve Cymrot, who died 2014, recognizes individuals whose energy and imagination are so infectious that they give off sparks to inspire others. It is hard to imagine anyone of whom this could be more true than 41-year-old James Perry, director of the Eastern High School Marching Band, often called the Blue and White Marching Machine.
For 17 years Perry has been encouraging students with his drive to see them succeed, not just musically but in everything they do. He notes with pride the colleges and universities that band alumni are attending and says he loves welcoming students back when they come to visit “with their college swag on.”
Perry fell in love with music as a child growing up in Portsmouth, Virginia, where family members would do their Saturday morning chores to the tunes of the king of Gospel, Rev. James Cleveland, R&B great Luther Vandross and the Mississippi Mass Choir. As a young teen he wanted to be “the cool guy” playing the drums, but his mother suggested that he choose something more practical. He chose ‒ and fell in love with ‒ the alto saxophone.
The high school he attended, I.C. Norcom, had what he describes as a “phenomenal” band. Its director, Donovan Wells, was a disciplinarian whose insistence on every detail being right, from the music to the uniforms to the “high stepping” characteristic of many black bands, made the group stand apart and do well in competitions. By the end of his time there, Perry was the band’s drum major, charged with leading processions and keeping the tempo. At college at Norfolk State University he was again part of a terrific band, the Spartans, whose distinctive headgear he had long admired. He also liked their “unique sound,” which never allowed the melody to get lost.
An early-childhood-education major, Perry worked initially as a pre-K teacher and mental health worker, jobs he loved. But when a living arrangement with friends in Portsmouth fell apart, he took it as a sign. He moved to DC, finding work at St. Coletta’s school for children with intellectual disabilities, where he reveled in what he calls the many “small wins” made by his students.
The school is just a few blocks from Eastern High, and before long he was volunteering there, working with the woodwinds and, in 2006, being hired as co-director of the band. Two years later, when his co-director left for law school, Perry became the band’s director. He now lives close enough to Eastern to walk to work. He sold his car several years ago and donated the proceeds to the band.
Perry was astonished when, after a Washington Post article last fall about the band and its relationship with the neighborhood, unsolicited donations began pouring in, finally amounting to over $213,000.
“I was overwhelmed,” he says. “It was just great to feel all that love.” Along with money came handwritten notes and offers of donations of instruments. The unexpected contributions will allow the band to replace the uniforms they have been wearing for more years than Perry cares to remember. For upcoming events, which include Eastern High School’s centennial, the band will look as sharp as it sounds. And no one will watch with more pride than James Perry.
The Public Is Welcome
The Community Achievement Awards ceremony on May 23 is a fundraiser and open to the public. For information about tickets contact Capitol Hill Community Foundation board members Nancy Lazear (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Buck Waller (Buckwaller3@gmail.com).