By Forrest Bachner
So here’s a puzzle. How are: 1) residential parking, 2) an attempted take-over of the BCA, 3) Barbara Bush, 4) Aldrich Ames, and 5) a trumpet from Wynston Marsalis, connected?
By the title of this article, you probably know the answer. Irene Schaffner. Read on for details. But first, some background.
Irene moved to Burleith in the early 1970s after marrying the love of her life, Larry. The Schaffners raised Cindy, now an antiques dealer, and John, a professor of business at Ohio State University, as well as their dog, Scylla (named for a female sea monster in Greek mythology ) and cat, Eros. Irene also is a grandmother to two boys, Sam and Henry. But back to the puzzle pieces.
First: Residential Parking. These days we take it for granted that visitors to our neighborhood are limited in how many hours they can park on our streets. But not in the 1970s. Then, Burleith residents left on-street parking spaces at their peril. Because of our close-in location, drivers from other areas would hover throughout the neighborhood in the mornings, waiting for residents to drive away. They’d then pounce on open spaces before catching a bus downtown for work. Burleith was essentially a free parking lot. Fortunately Burleith had Larry Schaffner, a brilliant lawyer, former editor of the law journal at GU, Assistant US Attorney appointed by Robert Kennedy, championing residential parking restrictions in Burleith and city-wide. Larry’s efforts on behalf of District residential parking also included a successful appeal to the Supreme Court when parking restrictions were overturned in Virginia. In recognition of these achievements, he was honored as the outstanding member of the BCA by the DC Federation of Civic Associations in 1976. When you glide into a space near your house thanks to your residential parking sticker, remember the hard work of Larry Schaffner.
Second: An attempted take-over of the BCA. While Larry was working to ensure we could park in our neighborhood, Irene is credited with saving the BCA. Once, a wily landlord of several student properties in the neighborhood organized his tenants to storm the annual election of BCA officers. The idea was that if these student-tenants all joined the BCA they could elect their own slate of officers, or at least control issues pertaining to landlords. This landlord didn’t reckon on Irene who, as corresponding secretary, knew the BCA bylaws on membership rules. According to those bylaws no one could walk in on the night of the vote and apply for membership. From her seat at the membership table, Irene, cool and unflustered, singlehandedly turned the crowd of students away.
Third: Barbara Bush. An artist since childhood, Irene is a graduate of the Vesper George School of Art in Boston with continued studies at Mount Vernon College, Georgetown University, and in private workshops. A watercolorist, she is also a frequent exhibitor and teacher. As far as subjects go, she came to a realization during a visit to Rockport, Massachusetts, where she noticed tourists snatching up shirts, towels, paintings, and seemingly any item with an image of a shack near the harbor. She had an “aha!” moment, and realized her hometown had its own tourist market featuring images of the nation’s capital. Washington Watercolors, Etc. was born. Featuring famous Washington locales, monuments, and buildings, Irene’s paintings of DC have been displayed across the city and highlighted at the National Museum for Women in the Arts. Closer to home, Burleithians were fortunate to find Irene’s works on the cover of many Burleith Newsletters, the forerunner to the Burleith Bell.
So what about Barbara Bush, though? When the First Lady attended an exhibit of Irene’s at the Mayflower Hotel, Irene surprised Mrs. Bush with a painting of the White House. This same watercolor is now hanging in the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. Later, the Bush and Clinton administrations would buy Irene’s paintings as gifts for foreign dignitaries. It is another painting of Irene’s, however, that leads us to puzzle piece number 4.
Fourth: Aldrich Ames and a legendary mailbox. Most people know the story of Aldrich Ames, the CIA officer turned KGB double agent who was convicted of espionage in 1994. People who live here may also know that a Burleith mail box located at the corner of 37th and R Streets (now at the Newseum) served as the chalkboard for Ames’ communications with his Russian handlers. But how many Burleithians know that the FBI surveilled the mailbox 24/7 from behind…drum roll…the beautifully kept hedges surrounding the Schaffner’s house? That’s right! For five months, Irene and Larry secretly hosted the FBI and nobody in Burleith knew it. Today, Irene has a gallery in her house where her paintings are on exhibit and shown by appointment. There, included in the famous scenes of Washington lining her walls, is an original watercolor of a blue USPS mailbox titled Espionage.
Finally: Wynton Marsalis’s Trumpet. Irene became great friends with musical legend Wynton Marsalis because of her son John’s one-time position as Marsalis’s road manager. Performance after performance, city after city, Larry and Irene were treated to primo tickets and green room visits with the much-honored Pulitzer Prize, Grammy-winning recipient of the Medal of Humanities. The visiting went both ways, though. During a stopover in DC, Marsalis called Irene, hoping to drop by for a visit. (He must have known about Irene’s legendary cooking skills.) Irene not only whipped dinner together on the spot, but also treated her neighbors to an impromptu meet-and-greet with the jazz great. His connection with Irene and her family continues to this day. Just a few years ago, one of Irene’s grandsons received an extra special birthday gift—the last puzzle piece—a trumpet from Wynton Marsalis.
So Irene’s puzzle is solved. At least the parts we know. But from my many years of living in Burleith, I’m struck with the number of fascinating stories our neighbors would have to tell, if only they were asked.