The People of Brookmont
Interesting people living in the Bethesda-area neighborhood.
an artist who paints the famous and the homeless
Raye Leith, 53, has lived in Brookmont for 11 years with her husband and two daughters. “Brookmont is a refuge for me,” Leith says. She recently was commissioned by a private collector to paint Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as Albert Einstein. “I paint famous people, often using as many as 20 different photographs to make one portrait,” Leith says. Using a group of photos, she recently painted a portrait of actress Alexandra Wentworth. George Stephanopoulos, Wentworth’s husband, came into Leith’s studio, saw the portrait and bought it.
Leith majored in ceramics in graduate school, but says she flunked out because she wasn’t making functional pottery—the pieces had to be able to hold something. Instead she was creating ceramic art pieces to hang on a wall. The school’s painting department took her in so that she could continue creating her wall pieces and that’s where she says she caught the painting bug.
About three years ago, Leith determined that Brookmont had become too peaceful to inspire her art. She wanted to experience a grittier side of life. “Art demands a certain tension, and all I was feeling was serenity,” she says. “My home-based studio reflected the perfect life. It didn’t demand enough of me or my senses to challenge me anymore.” Leith moved her studio to O Street in Northwest D.C. across the street from So Others Might Eat (SOME), an organization that provides shelters across the city and has a soup kitchen and a medical facility.
Leith says painting at her O Street studio is a different experience than paint-ing in Brookmont. “Just driving my car there is a different experience,” she says. “In Brookmont, I drive slow because of the children and dogs dashing into the street. In D.C., I drive carefully because so many homeless dash into the street because they don’t place enough value on their own lives.” Occasional gunshots, fights and the smell of trash are all part of life in D.C., but Leith has never wanted to move her studio back home.
Leith volunteers regularly at SOME, serving coffee and lunch when she has free time. As a member of the neighborhood, she has come to know—and paint—many homeless people. Leith feels compelled to capture their faces on canvas: asymmetrical features, psychological edge, and, often, jarring vulnerability. “It’s quite a bit different than painting the world’s beautiful people,” she says. “I believe we forget the homeless so easily. They become no more than the fire hydrant or park bench. We stop seeing them. I never want that to happen.” Portraits of Obama and Clinton hang alongside portraits of D.C.’s homeless in Leith’s studio. To her surprise, she sold two of the three paintings of homeless people displayed at her building’s annual open studio event.
These different worlds provide Leith’s life with a lot of color and diversity. “I balance my day on O Street by heading home to be in the presence of my family,” she says. “I integrate the day on O Street as I walk along the [C&O] canal with our dog, Minsky.” Leith’s home is filled with her art and the art and photography of her two daughters, Marina, 19, and Sylvia, 16.
canoe slalom world champion and boat designer
Davey Hearn, a 27-year resident of Brookmont, owned his first canoe at age 9, built his first boat at 13, and designed his first canoe three years later. He has been passionate about canoeing ever since he was a young boy. While other people his age were looking for the nearest party, Hearn was scouting the Potomac River for the most challenging white water.
In addition to racing canoes, Hearn, now 50, also collaborated with other top racers to design the Max series of canoes that are now used regularly in competitions. “We made the ends of the boat slim and ‘slicy’ to enable easier sneaking of gate poles, which led to the discovery of pivot turns, which allowed much faster spinning, turning and maneuvering on the slalom course than ever before,” Hearn says. He competed for more than 25 years, and is a two-time canoe slalom world champion and three-time Olympian. He was inducted into the International Whitewater Hall of Fame in 2005.
Now Hearn and his wife, Jennifer, 47, run Sweet Composites, a Bethesda distribution company that supplies everything a person needs to build a boat or a canoe. “One man called because he builds canoe paddles out of wood and wants to cover them with fiberglass. It’s lighter. So I was helping him figure out how best to do that,” Hearn says.
Hearn’s love of nature and the Potomac also led to a hobby that focuses on recycling usable items, including electronics, clothing, books, toys and sporting goods. The couple find these discarded goods in a number of ways, from curbsides to word of mouth. Hearns says he and Jennifer were inspired to a whole new level of recycling in 2007 when neighbors told them that they were going to renovate their house. “Since the house had been redone only eight years ago, [we] just couldn’t stand the waste,” Hearn says. “I thought people would buy this stuff. We decided it would be a great idea to recycle the house.” The Hearns sold or donated everything from doors to siding to the kitchen sink and the windows. They traded a shower door for a bottle of wine and sold the back deck in pieces. “It wasn’t easy,” Hearn says. “We had 10 days to pull it down, but we advertised in advance so people knew to show up.” It was painstaking work, but successful enough that, a few months later, they recycled another home that was being torn down.
JEFF GLASSIE AND JULIE LITTELL
On Christmas Day 2007, Julie Littell looked around her living room at the mountains of discarded wrapping paper and realized that something was wrong. “I filled a green garbage bag full. Every bit of this was going to end up in the nearest landfill,” Littell says. “I decided I needed to find 100 percent recyclable, post-consumer wrapping paper, because I love, really love, wrapping gifts. If I couldn’t use wrapping paper anymore, it would take a great joy away from me.” She scoured the Internet to no avail.
Undeterred, Littell, 49, took a two-month leave from her job as a senior immigration specialist at Baker & McKenzie in Washington, D.C., to launch her own company, Earth Presents. “I decided, why not? I’ll create my own line of truly green wrapping paper,” says Littell, who has lived in Brookmont for five years with her husband, Jeff Glassie. She encountered her first stumbling block when she sat down to design the paper and realized that she had no artistic talent beyond wrapping gifts. Glassie suggested that she talk to the people who run the nonprofit group, Washington Very Special Arts. “All my designs are based on the artwork of students at WVSA ARTs connection. Their School for ARTs In Learning [SAIL] works with students who have special needs as well as special talents,” Littell says. “The students’ artwork is so expressive and so whimsical it just grabs you.”
Working with a graphic designer, Littell used photos of the students’ artwork to design her first series of prints. “I now work part time at my law firm, and the rest of the time I work on building my company,” Littell says.
Earth Presents wrapping paper has recently been picked up by Whole Foods Market in the Mid-Atlantic region. Glassie, 56, is as eclectic as his wife. A partner at a D.C. law firm, he represents mainly nonprofit organizations and professional societies. But because he felt a need to poke fun at life he wrote a book called Fonging for the Soul.
“Fonging entails holding an oven rack up by two shoestrings [wrapping the tops of the shoestrings around your ears], then placing your fingers in your ears while someone taps on the rack with kitchen utensils,” Glassie says. “It produces a sound that sounds like you’re standing in a cathedral.” Glassie was at a party a few years ago when he recalled fonging in college. He hadn’t fonged in years, but out came the oven rack and some shoestrings. The next thing Glassie knew, all the guests were fonging.
Glassie wrote the book under an alias, Erasmus Caffery, and self-published it. He even created the Official Fonging Kit, which includes the book as well as all of the equipment needed for fonging. He has sold about 100 copies.
conservationist who helped discover a lost world
Bruce Beehler was 7 years old when he found his calling. At Lake Roland in Baltimore County, Beehler looked up and saw a red-bellied woodpecker. “To all small children, nature speaks to us like an epiphany, and that is what it was for me,” he says. “I’ve been looking at birds ever since.”
Beehler, 57, graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., in 1974 and won a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which provided funds for him to travel to New Guinea for 15 months to study the various birds of the island. After receiving his doctorate from Princeton University, he worked at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in D.C., where he continued his research of birds, particularly those of the Asia-Pacific region.
Beehler, who has lived in Brookmont for 20 years, changed careers to become a conservationist in 1991, when he began working with the Wildlife Conservation Society. “This is important work,” he says. “Humans take. They don’t put back. Humans take the last whale, the last tuna. But people will save what they love. So the goal in conservation is to help people appreciate habitats and the animals in them so that they will be inspired to try to save them.”
Beehler is a senior research scientist for Conservation International’s Melanesia Center for Biodiversity Conservation, located in Virginia. In 2005, CI was granted clearance from Indonesia to explore the exceedingly remote Foja Mountains in western New Guinea. Beehler co-led the expedition.
The focus was on exploring the upper elevations of the mountains, which are uninhabited by humans. “The forest people who ‘own’ the Foja Mountains only penetrate into the very fringe of this vast wilderness area [a day’s walk or so],” Beehler says. “To get into the high interior would take a five- to 10-day walk. So when we helicoptered in, the landowners came with us to see, for the first time, their mountain forests that they own. It was like going back in time. There was no sign of human habitation.”
Once in this “lost world,” scientists discovered more than 70 new species, including 20 new frog species and close to 50 new insect species. Beehler discovered a new bird species, now known as Melipotes carolae and named after his wife, Carol. “Seeing it feeding in a small fruit tree beside the open bog atop the Foja Mountains was one of the most memorable snapshots of my time on that mystical expedition,” Beehler says. “It was like being handed a rare gift from Mother Nature.”
Beehler often shares his love of birds and wildlife with his neighbors. Barred owls, otherwise known as hoot owls, live in the trees of Brookmont and often can be heard hooting. Beehler says he recently led a spontaneously formed group of neighbors in an effort to “hoot up an owl.”
“I started calling, and the owls put up quite a show,” Beehler says. “They flew back and forth and called out. Once in full gear, their calls sounded like something coming out of Hades. It was wonderful. We tried it again the next night and 40 people showed up—[but] not one owl. It was quite a disappointment.”
Beehler says the experience reminded him that owls are wild animals, and that he is lucky to live so close to nature. “We hear red foxes in spring when they are courting; beavers are common down on the C&O below our neighborhood,” he says. “I’m still waiting anxiously to see our first coyotes in the neighborhood.”
Beehler is still exploring. If all goes as planned, he is scheduled to perform fieldwork in the Saruwaged Range, a mountainous area in Papua New Guinea in September. “I’ll be looking to measure the impact of climate change on forests and wildlife,” he says.
minister of the Brookmont Church for more than 20 years
At almost 80 years of age, Peter Ainslie was married for the first time last year. “I met the love of my life five years ago and decided to ask her to marry me,” he says. “Before that, I had great relationships, but this one seemed to be especially blessed on attitudes toward spirituality, social justice and affability.”
Ainslie has guided the Brookmont community in nontraditional spirituality at the Brookmont Church for more than 20 years. “I believe that my job is as a birther—someone who helps others give birth to the divine within themselves,” says Ainslie, who is originally from Baltimore and previously was a minister at Randall Street Christian Church in Baltimore. “For me, it is not about believing in a certain system—it is a way of being. I want to help create an atmosphere of mutual love and acceptance.” Under Ainslie, the Brookmont Church is a true community church, embracing all religions. The Christmas pageant’s angels and shepherds are a mix of Jewish, Protestant and Catholic children. Passover and Easter are celebrated, and Buddhist prayers can be heard during services.
Ainslie is more than a minister—he is a community organizer. “I moved here and thought, ‘What can I do to liven this place up, to help bring these different people together?’ ” Ainslie says. In his quest to bring the community together on spiritual and personal levels, he has started several projects and groups within Brookmont, including the Arts Alliance. At monthly meetings, Brookmont artists gather to share their paintings and writings, and to offer constructive criticism. The group is multi-generational; the members range in age from 17 to almost 80. “There is also a peace and social justice group where we march in peace demonstrations as well as volunteer at SOME [So Others Might Eat],” Ainslie says.
Community members will tell you that Ainslie makes house calls, helps organize Brookmont’s Fourth of July parade, takes elderly residents to lunch once a month, and offers workshops on meditation and how to write a spiritual journal. “He tries to make sure he knows if anyone in the neighborhood is ill or otherwise having a hard time, and frequently volunteers to drive people places if they can’t drive themselves,” says resident Kate Robinson, 22.
nationally recognized poet and co-editor of Poet Lore
Jody Bolz has always loved the sound of words. “Family lore has it that before I could write, I would dictate poems to my Russian Jewish immigrant grandmother,” Bolz says. “Of course, my grandmother, who spoke English fluently but with an accent, often spelled words in keeping with her accent. Many of the words were misspelled, but I didn’t know that. I was 3.” Bolz has gone on to have her poems published in numerous anthologies, including Weavings 2000: The Maryland Millennial Anthology and Her Face in the Mirror. She also has been published in almost every U.S. literary magazine of note, including The American Scholar, Ploughshares, Gargoyle and Southern Poetry Review.
Bolz, 60, has lived in Brookmont with her husband, Brad Northup, for more than 24 years. She taught creative writing for 24 years at The George Washington University, but left four years ago, when she decided she needed more time to focus on her writing and on one of her deep passions: helping poetry reclaim its music. “The baby boomers often abandoned formal structures and verse, for good reason, but they also abandoned the music in the words. Now, much of today’s poetry sounds like prose,” Bolz says.
What better way to influence and support poetry than by becoming the executive editor of Poet Lore, which describes itself as the nation’s oldest continuously published poetry magazine. “An amazing couple, Charlotte Porter and Helen Clarke, started this journal in 1889,” Bolz says. “This magazine, now published by The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, has discovered many poets over the decades.” Mary Oliver, whose early work was published in Poet Lore, won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, was first introduced to American audiences in Poet Lore, Bolz says.
“Each month, Ethelbert Miller, my fellow editor, and I read close to 1,000 submissions,” Bolz says. “Then we meet and read the poems we like out loud to each other. I listen for the beauty, the sound of the words, not just for the meaning. Ever so often, I read one that makes me go, ‘Oh wow! Now I’m awake.’ ”
That is the reaction both Bolz and Miller had when they read the poem R. Dwayne Betts submitted while he was still in prison. Betts, then 25, hijacked a car at 16 and was incarcerated for eight years. During his time in prison, he began to write poetry that created a stir in the literary world. “We published Dwayne Betts’ first poem in the spring of 2004. Ethelbert Miller was helpful to him once he got out of prison and moved to D.C.,” Bolz says. Since then, Betts’ poetry has received national attention, he signed a book deal with Penguin and published his first book, A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison.
Bolz shares her love of poetry with her neighbors. Recently, at Brookmont’s first Literary Café, a gathering of writers who share their work, Bolz read some of her poems to an audience of about 60. One of the poems was Last Draft of the Day’s Light, which is about Brookmont. Here is an excerpt from the poem:
Last Draft of the Day’s Light
Not wilderness exactly
a wooded valley
and the river in it
waterfall and towpath
a canal that runs to Cumberland
beside the Potomac
you know that
with your neighborhood
stage set by some Luminist
where you describe
no calendar can register
THE HISTORY OF BROOKMONT
Stilson Hutchins, founder of The Washington Post, arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1877. He quickly became fascinated with the part of Montgomery County now called Brookmont; he loved its incredible views of the Potomac River. He purchased the land, and the area soon became known as Hutchins’ Brookemont Farm. The land was sold to a developer after Hutchins’ death, and in 1925, the community of Brookmont came into being.
“Brookmont rests on the very corner of the county, so, early on, it was hard to get services, such as water [and] trash, as well as getting the dirt roads paved,” says Barbara Torrey, co-author of Brookmont, A Neighborhood on the Potomac. “The homeowners began a civic league to deal with these problems, a league that still functions today. The members of the league began a letter-writing campaign to the county government to make improvements, and it eventually worked.” The civic league also dealt with a variety of other issues: front yards littered with trash, instances of disorderly conduct, and an epidemic of D.C.’s young people using the edges of the community as a lover’s lane. “Brookmont’s civic league swore in their own deputy sheriff for two years to take care of some of the abuses,” Torrey says.
The community also gained notoriety in the late 1920s and early ’30s, when Eddie Killeen lived on Brookmont’s Ridge Drive. According to newspaper articles and accounts in historical books, Killeen’s house was the scene of several police raids because of drinking, poker games, and rowdiness. In 1935, he and his married mistress began a drinking bout that escalated into a vicious fight. What happened in his bedroom that day is riddled with conjecture—but what is certain is that Killeen’s mistress shot him dead. Brookmont briefly became synonymous with scandal.
More than 70 years later, Brookmont and its 180 homes are known for community spirit and neighborliness. A single street, Maryland Avenue, still leads in and out of Brookmont. “This unique feature has helped create a geographic community,” Torrey says. “People pass their neighbors almost every day.” Over the years, Brookmont’s community-centered activities, its community-based, non-ecumenical church and its location on the Potomac and near Washington, D.C., have made it a place that appeals to many different types of people, including artists, writers, kayakers and Fortune 500 business leaders.
Brookmont resident Louisa Jaggar co-authored the book Saving Stuff (Fireside Press 2005) and
has written for Real Simple and The Washington Post.