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Western Alumni Suggest New Name for Local Field

By Mark LiebermanCurrent Staff Writer

Western High School officially transformed into Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 1977, leaving behind scores of alumni who maintained pride for their school even after its name and mission changed. More than four decades later, some graduates of Western High are fighting to make sure their Burleith alma mater doesn’t fade entirely from memory.

In late summer, alumni association board member Charlie Volkman proposed the idea of changing the name of the Ellington Field back to Western High School Stadium as a “memorial” to what came before. The goal is to keep Western’s legacy alive well into the future, even as the alumni ranks diminish. “From now on there will never be names or remembrance among anybody if we don’t have something concrete,” said Volkman, 85.

He notes that most people in the city don’t remember that Cardozo Education Campus, at 1200 Clifton St. NW, used to be called Central High School. The similar prospect of Western disappearing from the public consciousness worries Volkman, who said he hopes the name can be changed by the end of 2016.

The field, located at 38th Street and Reservoir Road NW two blocks from the high school, seemed like a perfect target to Volkman because a name change wouldn’t affect its operations.

Volkman said Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans has praised the idea and urged him to gather support from local community groups before the proposal reaches the council as a bill. Volkman has already attended meetings of the Palisades/Foxhall advisory neighborhood commission, which plans to consider the proposal in February, and the Glover Park Citizens Association, which approved a letter of support.

Volkman has also been in contact with the Georgetown/Burleith neighborhood commission, and the Burleith Citizens Association saw a brief presentation on the proposal at a November meeting, where the possibility of a plaque commemorating Western High also came up. The citizens group plans to hold a special community meeting to discuss the name change in February, according to president Eric Langenbacher.

Volkman plans to visit more local groups in the coming months, emphasizing the significance of Western’s memory to the entire Northwest community.

Prior to the opening of Wilson High School in 1935, “we were the only high school west of Rock Creek Park,” Volkman said. “So it’s not just Burleith where the field is. It’s the neighborhood.”

Western High School opened in 1890 and served the community for 80 years, moving into what is now the Duke Ellington building in 1897. By the 1970s, a declining school-age population led to enrollment declines and the creation of a new performing arts program using part of Western’s space. That program became Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a magnet arts school for the entire city, and Western High closed down in 1977.

Volkman graduated from Western in 1949. He has lived in the same Burleith home since he was born. Though more than six decades have passed since high school, he still has vivid memories of watching football games at the field and participating in the cadet corps.

The old high school boasts a sprawling list of notable alumni. Graduates include the first Miss America; Clarence Brown, a U.S. representative for Ohio from 1965 to 1983; and David Scott, the seventh person to walk on the moon and the first person to drive on it.

Neighborhood commissioner Ed Solomon, whose single-member district includes Ellington’s field, said he and his colleagues haven’t yet seen a formal presentation of the proposal and that he plans to reserve judgment until more community feedback comes in. But he expects the idea to be divisive, given that most community members have never known the field as anything other than Ellington’s. “It could be a very sensitive issue,” Solomon said.

Langenbacher of the Burleith Citizens Association echoed that sentiment, saying several residents have expressed concern about the name change.

“I think that people are comfortable referring to it as Ellington Field,” he said. “It’s also attached to a school that’s still in the neighborhood that also makes it easier for people to identify.”

He personally feels that the current name honoring the renowned African-American musician is appropriate.

Volkman, however, is optimistic that his proposal can move forward in 2016. “It’s been an experience,” he said of his campaign. “I hope it goes through, for the sake of posterity, not mine.”

This article appears in the Dec. 30 issue of The Georgetown Current newspaper.