Arlington community leader recalls going to school with president of the United States
February 15, 2013
Arlington County resident Elliott Mandel, president of the 540-member Lyon Park Citizens Association, didn't learn that students from his Hawaiian middle school alma mater were rehearsing on Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall until after the fact. Students from the Honolulu-based Punahou School came to the base the Friday before the Jan. 21 presidential inaugural to rehearse for the big event, ensuring the notes and fancy footwork honed on a tropical island paradise were transferable to the below-freezing temperatures of Washington, D.C.
If he'd known, Mandel probably would have stopped by to say hello to the visiting musicians, cheerleaders and ROTC students, but he was already caught up in activities with another delegation from Hawaii that had come to town to watch the inauguration -- a group from the Punahou School class of '79, which both he and President Barack Obama are members of.
Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall is just one swatch of land in an interlocking community of neighborhoods that make up Arlington County and the District of Columbia's Southwest waterfront area where Fort McNair is located. One of the hallmarks of neighborliness is keeping those on your block informed about issues that might affect them, and as such, JBM-HH regularly communicates with regional civic associations, inviting members to installation events and listening to their concerns.
Mandel, a structural engineer by profession, got in touch with the JBM-HH Public Affairs Office after Community Relations Officer Leah Rubalcaba sent out an email alerting surrounding communities of an upcoming audio alert test that residents might be impacted by. In reply, Mandel thanked her for the notification, told her he'd seen an article on the Punahou School in the installation newspaper and mentioned he was an alumnus. He offered to share his story of growing up with the 44th president of the United States with the Pentagram.
Mandel was born in New York and moved with his family to Hawaii right after third grade. After attending a public school for fourth grade, he transferred to Punahou for fifth through seventh grade. His family moved to the island state because his engineer father had a project he was working on there.
"It certainly is paradise. On the surface it was exactly how I imagined it -- palm trees and beaches. But I had no idea about the depth of the place, the culture and the opportunities to learn about island civilization," Mandel said. "I certainly didn't expect the aloha spirit -- which you have to experience, you can't be told about." Despite spending only four years there, Mandel said, "I'm in constant contact with many classmates and friends from Hawaii. We correspond a lot." He said he first reconnected with the former president by exchanging emails when Obama was running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois.
In "Our Friend Barry," a compilation of essays by members of the Class of '79, the chapter Mandel contributed is titled "Early Indications." It profiles the strength of character Obama displayed in his formative years. Mandel relates how the future president made an effort to put a stop to bullying on his school campus at a time when the issue didn't have the prominence it does today.
"Although he was not particularly outspoken, Barry was a sensitive, empathetic kid and he had limits to how much injustice he could tolerate," Mandel wrote. "He seemed to dare himself to overcome the pressure to keep silent, without caring, or at least without seeming to care, about the social consequences of standing up for the victim of teasing. At one point, while a student was being picked on, Barry had had enough. I remember the look of disgust on his face. He squinted and sighed deeply, and then the words rang out, 'Guys … that's enough. Lay off.' "The victim of vilification had been protected because Barry had the character to overcome the silence of the passive observer," Mandel concluded, adding, "We did not know at the time that his behavior was indicative of a deeper desire to serve and protect the most vulnerable people in our society."
"The president was really sensitive about that," Mandel said, expanding on what he wrote. "To speak up about it was pretty brave, I thought. In sixth grade we couldn't tell who was going to end up where [in life]. In retrospect, he had something going on that I think teachers and adults recognized. But to kids, he was just another kid in class."
"My opinion is that his experience in Hawaii really set some ground work for his thinking," Mandel continued, "just the way he sees the world, his tolerance of people and the way he thinks about how world cultures fit together."
On the lighter side, Mandel relates how he and the future president "did play sports, but it was more like intramural and pick-up. I played a lot of basketball with him. I think he was probably just introduced to basketball around fifth grade."
"My growth spurt was a little earlier than his," Mandel added smiling, "so in sixth grade I was taller. He caught up after that, but I remember clearly having a height advantage."
Mandel said a lot of well-known people have come out of Punahou, including U.S. Senator Brian Schatz (who recently replaced the late Daniel Inouye), America Online founder Steve Case, football player Manti Te'o and several Olympic competitors.
The president was pretty normal, Mandel said. "He did what kids did back then. He loved body surfing and spending time at friends' houses socializing and playing basketball. I used to have campouts at my house and he did attend one [where they'd set up tents and hold backyard cookouts]. He was a pretty serious student, too. He wasn't the rocket scientist of the class, but he was a good student. He was smart."
When members of the Class of '79 got a tour of the White House in 2009, Mandel said the group got special attention, in part because the former nanny to Obama's sister was part of the tour.
"One of the Secret Service people came to see us and said, 'The man wants to see you in the "round room" [better known as the Oval Office].' We got there and were waiting outside … and then this door opened and there he was. "We all stood around and he was giving advice on what monuments to see," Mandel recalled. "He asked what [fellow classmates] were doing and got caught up on [the whereabouts of] some people. His homeroom teacher from '79 still teaches at Punahou."
Mandel said he can see aspects of his former classmate in the actions he takes and the things he says today as president. "I can't say I can anticipate what he does, but when I hear his opinions, I can't help but think, 'Gosh, that sounds just like him.' I'm rarely surprised," he said. "I think he sincerely cares about people. I think so much of his personality emanates from just caring -- a very deep caring."
The structural engineer said the Lyon Park Citizen's Association has a good working relationship with JBM-HH. "I've taken advantage of the facilities there. I've been to the bowling alley and so forth. Fort Myer is on my regular bike route, so I ride through it," he said. "I have attended programs at Fort Myer. I love the Tuba and Euphonium Festival. I missed it this year. My son played tuba, so we used to go quite often."
Mandel said occasional noise emanating from the base has sometimes been an issue. "It's mostly seasonal," he said. "In the wintertime most people don't hear very much. We hear things like taps in the summertime because our windows are open." He said the citizen association's biggest concerns are issues of traffic and development in the neighborhood.
"I think most people in our neighborhood enjoy having a neighbor like Fort Myer," said Mandel, a 22-year resident of Arlington. "Lyon Park prides itself on members who care about the community. It's a very active neighborhood. We advocate for issues and try to create a good sense of community."
That's no different from JBM-HH's goal in supporting the joint base commander's mission of fostering and strengthening supportive partnerships in the communities that surround the installation.
The Public Affairs Community Relations Office works to support the joint commander's mission of fostering and strengthening good community relations and mutually supportive partnerships in the communities that surround Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall -- namely Arlington County and southwest Washington, D.C.
JBM-HH maintains memberships and associations with key community organizations coordinating events that showcase the command, the base's historic aspects and other areas of interest. Seven civic associations surround the installation in Arlington County, including: Radnor Fort Myer Heights, Clarendon Courthouse, Lyon Park, Penrose, Columbia Heights, Arlington View, and Foxcroft Heights. The District of Columbia's Ward 6 surrounds the portion of the installation in Southwest Washington. The Community Relations Office informs local leaders about installation issues that affect them, identifying traffic issues, responding to inquiries and concerns or inviting them to attend command-hosted community events.
"We are a neighborhood in these communities and Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall continually strives to be a good neighbor," said Rubalcaba.