Crate and Barrel was Garfinckel’s. Bluestone Lane was Blackistone Florist. And Wagshals was….well, Wagshals. That was Spring Valley circa 1988, when my husband, son Brendon, and our two Akitas dogs first joined the Spring Valley community. I was the Director of Programming and Community Affairs at WRC-TV, NBC4. My late husband, Jim Vance, was the anchor of the 6 and 11 pm newscasts there. And “there” was just up the street on Nebraska Avenue, a quick four-minute commute by car—or motorcycle – depending on the weather. But there could not have been a better location for two people who worked odd hours, long days, and more than a few weekends and holidays.
Vance and I had met at the station years before. I arrived as a trainee reporter, fresh from a minority journalism fellowship at Columbia University. As a young woman from Cleveland, Ohio, all my previous years in DC had been as a student, first at American University, then George Washington, and finally at Howard University Law School where I earned my J.D. degree. As my TV experience grew, so did my career, spending years as a writer, news producer, then Producer of Special Projects. Through it all, I had a ringside seat to some of our city’s most pivotal and historic events. Elections and inaugurations, the first papal visit to the United States, plane crashes and mega snowstorms that shut the city down for days. All those events were workdays for me, and once we moved to Spring Valley, I was fortunate to have my house nearby to escape to when I needed a break in the middle of the chaos.
Less frenetic and more fun were the TV shows I executive produced after taking over as Program Director. Along with life-saving community campaigns, and setting the station’s broadcast schedule, I was proud to be on the team that created the station’s long-running slogan, “Working 4 You.” It was a lot! Fulfilling, life-changing, impactful … and a lot.
But my true love – besides Vance, of course – was producing, and there came a day when I chose to combine them both. Giving up my executive job, I became a freelance producer, still working primarily for NBC, but producing long-form pieces exclusively with Vance. What an adventure that was, literally! With features on some of D.C.’s heroes like legendary Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson; retrospectives on D.C.’s civil rights history and the Million Man March; interviews with President Obama and First Lady Michelle; international stories like the election of Nelson Mandela as the first Black president of South Africa, and, one of my favorites, a ten-piece series on Vietnam, twenty years after the war. Having been glued to the newsroom monitors on that fateful last day of the war, as helicopters filled with Americans and evacuees took off with South Vietnamese citizens clamoring to escape with them, it was sobering and yet uplifting to later see, firsthand, how the country and its people have recovered in the years since.
Our cameraman on that trip, Mike Whatley, had been an infantryman in Vietnam, and kept a daily diary of his war maneuvers, which he brought with him. We happened to be in the city of Hue on the anniversary of the conquering of that city by the North Vietnamese – a battle Mike had fought in. In a moment of bizarre synchronicity, we discovered that the manager of our hotel had been a North Vietnamese army officer who fought in that same battle. He brought out the strategic plans and maps that he’d saved, and the two compared notes – Mike with his diary, and the colonel with his maps, each from the opposite side of that very battle. While they swapped stories, Mike and I swapped places, and I got behind the camera to capture the moment as these two former enemies relived the past and eventually made peace. It was a tearful moment for all of us.
We won an Emmy Award for that series, but the real win was the transformative experience of watching history in action.
Becoming a freelance producer afforded me more special moments outside the NBC umbrella. I’ve gotten to interview notables like General Colin Powell, the Honorable John Lewis, Spring Valley neighbor Attorney General Eric Holder, and singer Gladys Knight. From the time my son was little, I’d hoped to dance with him at his wedding to Knight’s “You’re the Best Thing.” When Brendon married Hanoi, I got my wish, and what a thrill to be able to tell that story to Gladys Knight herself.
Much has happened in Spring Valley and in our lives over the years. Our home is in what’s now called “old” Spring Valley, and the wooded hill that was in our line of sight when we moved here has given way to “new” Spring Valley, and home to some of my dearest friends. We were the only African American family here in the late 1980s, and, in fact, there was a covenant barring non-whites from buying here. Thankfully the covenants are gone, and neighborhood diversity is slowly increasing. And now, instead of walking with young Brendon to the Peoples’ Drugstore for candy, my grandkids and I trek to the CVS in search of healthy snacks.
My husband left the station – and all of us – a little more than five years ago now. But some echoes of his life here remain. The garage where he kept his two Harley Davidson motorcycles that were the delight of some -- and the bane of others -- as he vroom-vroomed through the neighborhood in his black leather jacket, boots, and chaps, looking more like a dusty biker dude than the sophisticated anchorman the rest of the city knew him to be. And our front porch where he and I would sit together and watch the neighbors on their daily walks, now is the perch from which our fourth Akita, Samurai, barks at certain four-legged passersby that give him the side-eye.
We came up with a lot of ideas, sitting on that porch. One of which was the college scholarship Vance created for a graduating student at Archbishop Carroll High School, in Northeast DC. After he passed, I took over the scholarship – now The Vance Family Scholarship. And thanks to benefactor Steve Newby, Carroll now houses the Jim Vance Media Program, complete with a full TV production studio, and hands-on journalism classes. The National Home Library Foundation is another of my volunteer activities. It’s fulfilling to be president of an organization whose sole function is to grant money for books and other reading materials to organizations promoting literacy in underserved communities.
“Hollywood’s Architect: The Paul R. Williams Story” is my professional focus these days. An Emmy Award-winning documentary, it premiered on PBS in February 2020. Williams was an African American architect who designed iconic buildings and homes for Hollywood’s elite -- including Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Carry Grant; the Beverly Hills Hotel, Saks Fifth Avenue – at a time in our nation’s history when, because of his race, he was often unable to frequent the buildings he designed. The film looks at his struggles and triumphs, and features interviews with musician Quincy Jones, Oscar winner Steve Tisch, and Disney CEO Bob Iger, as well as some of the most beautiful buildings you’ll ever see -- not unlike some of the homes here in Spring Valley. I was co-producer and co-director, and now spend time with appearances at universities and other organizations discussing Williams and the film. It continues to air on PBS stations around the country, as well as online at www.pbssocal.org. Our website, www.hollywoodsarchitect.org, has even more information on this extraordinary man.
When I tell people that I live in Spring Valley, those who don’t know the city think I’m making a joke, calling up a fantasy location like one would find on a sitcom or TV drama. It’s the name: “Spring Valley.” But it is a perfect blend of the old and new, city and suburb, and, here’s a little-known secret: one of the best vantage points in the city to view the sunset! Here’s hoping for many more beautiful Spring Valley sunsets to come.