In Memory – John Klaja: 1964 to 2023

Johnny holding nine balloons in front of his famous banana trees. Photo: William Fleishell.

Recently, we lost our dear friend John Klaja, who accidently drowned in a pool while on vacation. Age 58, John, a longtime resident of Archibald Walk exemplified neighborliness. His passing was a shock.

It’s one thing if someone you know has a chronic condition or even a terminal illness. The inevitable slowly creeps up. But, when someone is in the prime of their life and is suddenly struck down, it really yanks the chain so to speak.

“Johnny was a bright, playful and gentle soul who had a way of making everything around him beautiful. He was an irreplaceable part of our alley community and he will be dearly missed,” said neighbor Loraine Heckenburg.

A Full Life
John “ Johnny” Klaja was born and raised south of the Buffalo New York region in a rural area. He grew up in a foster family, establishing lifelong relationships with his siblings. His sister Michelle often visited us in DC .

A graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology, Johnny was a talented visual designer. A skilled tinkerer with computers, lighting and cameras, he could get any technology to function. For years, Johnny worked as a freelance graphic designer and a stage lighting expert. Eventually, he settled on a salaried position at the United Way.

More recently, Johnny landed a very prestigious position at the Department of the Interior as a graphic designer. He absolutely loved his new job, putting in many long hours on projects. His supervisors found him indispensable.

Johnny and his husband Rene at Denny’s. Photo: William Fleishell

Johnny was a big fan of Dalmatians. Recently, he acquired two miniatures. In the 1990s, he sold Dalmatian-centric  merchandise at Eastern market.

Despite his professional responsibilities, Johnny also found time to travel with his husband of 35 years, Rene Albecete. They visited Greece, Turkey and South Africa together. “John loved the sun!” recalled Carol Knight. The two men were a fixture on Archibald Walk, a cul-de-sac community of tiny, alley homes located behind Christ Church.

A Valued Neighbor
Neighbors on Archibald Walk share a deep sense of community. Johnny facilitated that spirit, organizing large Halloween Autumn Joy parties. Everyone chipped in food and beverages and decorated the alley. They were truly epic in scale.

If a neighbor found themselves in a bad way, Johnny was out knocking on doors to collect funds to help. He was the kind of person who would give his shirt off his back to a stranger, even if he couldn’t spare it.

“Johnny’s kindness extended beyond his circle of friends; he was an excellent neighbor, displaying compassion even to strangers in need. His selflessness was evident as he quietly offered help and sustenance to the homeless without seeking recognition. Johnny’s actions spoke volumes about his character, always genuine and devoid of virtue-signaling,” said neighbor Armando Cortinez.

“Whether it was offering encouragement during tough times or assisting in finding employment, he was a pillar of support for those he cared about,” said Cortinez.

Johnny was a huge gardening enthusiast, regularly putting out banana trees in front of his house for all to wonder and gawk at. He was known for his holiday lights. Last month, he put out his beautiful prismatic Pride flag.

“His passion for plants inspired others, leading them to embrace gardening as a hobby. Beyond the joy he found in nature, Johnny had a remarkable ability to lift the spirits of those around him,” said Cortinez.

Johnny’s alley home was on the 2016 Capitol Hill Restoration Homes & Gardens Tour, which featured Archibald Walk. Many got to see his meticulously organized little townhouse. A very whimsical fellow with an incredible sense of humor, he festooned his living spaces with garden gnomes and Buddha statues adorned with Mardi Gras necklaces.

Neighbors’ Tributes
This tribute ends with the words of his neighbors and friends.

“John was an incredible and special human. To talk with John was to feel kindness, joy and a love of all living things. He was a light and a spirit whose memory will remain in our hearts,” said neighbors Shirley and Gene. “Johnny – Big heart; gentle soul,” said neighbor Jessica.

The loss of Johnny is deeply felt by all who knew him. Let us carry his memory in our hearts and strive to embody the kindness and compassion he exemplified throughout his life. May he rest in peace, knowing the profound impact he had on those fortunate enough to have known him,” said Cortinez.

William Fleishell’s studio is on Archibald Walk. He is a faculty member at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. He can be found at