In her next chapter, Raimo assumed leadership of a small special education school in an Arlington Virginia church basement and in 28 years transformed that classroom into St. Coletta of Greater Washington, an agency that serves over 500 intellectually disabled adults and children. The crowning achievment of that agency is perhaps the Michael Graves designed campus at 1901 Independence Avenue SE, a project that involved Raimo from site choice to design to fundraising, and one which the Washington Post in 2016 called one of the “10 buildings you must see around the new boom-time Washington.”
Interview with Sharon Raimo
Interview Date: May 27, 2022
Interviewer: Randy Norton
Transcriber: David MacKinnon
Editor: Elizabeth Lewis
START OF INTERVIEW[BM1]
NORTON: Today is Friday May 27, 2022. We are at Sharon Raimo’s home at 157 Kentucky Avenue, SE, Washington, DC. It’s now about quarter after two. Good afternoon.
RAIMO: Good afternoon, Randy.
NORTON: Where are you from?
RAIMO: I am from New Jersey.
RAIMO: I was born in Orange, New Jersey, and we always lived in Livingston.
NORTON: Where did you go to school?
RAIMO: I went to Catholic school in Livingston from the time I was a little kid until the time I was 14. I have four brothers and sisters and we all, except for my youngest brother Kevin, went to school there.
When I was 14 my father got transferred to the Eastern Shore of Maryland. So, we moved to Easton, which was nothing. There was nothing. The Bay Bridge had just been built. The people over there were like, “You people are weird. We don’t know who you are. Why don’t you just go back from where you came from?” I hated it there.
NORTON: That would have been sort of mid-50s, then, or early 50s?
RAIMO: No, that was end of 1960 probably.
RAIMO: I went to public school there for two days. That was the only time I ever put my foot in a public school. I went to public school there, to Easton High School, where they informed me that there were two high schools. There was a high school for the African American children down the road and there was this high school. The N word was used frequently. I went to a math class and the math teacher said to me, “Girl, you know your polynomials?” I was like, “What?” His name was Mr. Fishpaw. “Girl, you know your polynomials?” I do not know what he was talking about. I said, “No sir.” He said, “Well, we’ll put this girl back in the slow group. This girl need to be in the slow group.” I was, like, “Okay.” I went home and told my parents, “I’m never going back there.”
There was a little, tiny Catholic school. They signed me up to go to this little tiny Catholic high school. And that’s where I went. It was integrated. And that’s where I went to high school. That’s where my sister went to high school. Then my parents figured out pretty quickly that, “No, you really weren’t supposed to stay and go to high school in that town. You were supposed go away.” So my brothers went to boarding school. But the girls were home. I think my father would have preferred the girls to be home anyway. But, we were home.
NORTON: The Catholic school, the little Catholic school was in Easton?
RAIMO: The little Catholic school was Saint Peter and Paul School in Easton. It’s still there. There’s no high school anymore, still a grade school. That’s where I went.
NORTON: Where did you go to college?
RAIMO: Trinity College, Washington, DC.
NORTON: When did you graduate?
NORTON: Is that how you got to DC?
RAIMO: Yes, that’s how I got to DC and that’s how I met my life-long friends, many of them, Peggy O’Brien among them. A lot of us moved to Capitol Hill right after school. Mostly. I went home for a couple of years, maybe one or two, then came right back and was here, like, forever.
NORTON: So, you went home to Easton?
RAIMO: Went home, went to graduate school, taught high school there. That was the second time I ever put my foot in a public school, was to go to teach high school.
NORTON: This was after you got out of Trinity?
RAIMO: I taught English in Easton High School, which was by then integrated. I taught remedial English to boys who were like six-foot-five and I was 22. It was an experience.
NORTON: Then what happened?
RAIMO: I came back here and I was the first woman teacher at DeMatha [Catholic high school in DC].
NORTON: How did you get that job?
RAIMO: Peggy and I had this friend, Ron Bosco. Ron decided that he wanted to be a writer. So, he was teaching at DeMatha and he wanted somebody … He said, “I’ve got to go on a leave of absence and I want somebody to take over my classes for at least a year.” And they said to me there, “If you work out, then you can stay.” Whatever, whatever.
So, I went and I took his job at DeMatha not realizing that the only other woman in the building was the secretary in the office. In order to go to the bathroom, I had to leave the third floor, go all the way down to the first floor, go through Father Boniface’s (the principal’s) office, back into the secretary’s office, go to the bathroom, and then go all the way back upstairs to the third floor. It was not the most …
But Adrian Dantley [Notre Dame basketball player and professional basketball player and coach] was in my class. I had some really—Kenny Roy [University of Maryland basketball and football player and professional football player]––some guys that became really, really great college athletes. It was a very fun experience, but I thought, “I’m not staying here after this year, this is not for me.”
NORTON: So, it was just one year?
RAIMO: It was just for one year. I was like, “I’m not going to be the only person here.”
NORTON: Where were you living when you were teaching at DeMatha?
RAIMO: Here on Capitol Hill. I had a…
NORTON: Where did you move?
RAIMO: I lived on Fourth Street I think with my friend Kathy Hagen. We rented a little house on Fourth Street right across from the Peabody playground. We lived there. Then I decided after that year––I was beating my head against the wall teaching English to these kids, and they were not remedial. They were fine, but Chaucer, I was supposed to teach. I was teaching Shakespeare. They were like “Blech!” these boys. They just didn’t—I always liked special ed [education]. When I was at Trinity I always volunteered to be with—I volunteered at the Kennedy Institute and all these places. So, I’m back home for another year and got a master’s in special ed, then came back.
NORTON: Where did you get the master’s?
RAIMO: Salisbury University in Salisbury, Maryland. I could live at home and drive there and drive back. That summer, or maybe right before that summer, I met Bernie Raimo. Because I had a whole lot of parking tickets. We had mutual friends. We met at Mama Ayesha's one night. Remember Mama Ayesha's?
NORTON: I don’t.
RAIMO: Oh, my goodness. I think it’s still there up on Calvert Street [1967 Calvert Street NW, originally called the Calvert Cafe]. On the Calvert Street bridge. No, first I got the tickets. First, I got all the traffic tickets and I had to go to court. I went to court and he was the prosecuting attorney. He was with the Corporation Counsel’s Office.
NORTON: Bernie was?
RAIMO: Uh huh. I was cute and Judge [Alfred] Burka was the judge. Judge Burka’s mother had been knifed outside the Kennedy Warren. [Apartments, 3133 Connecticut Avenue NW]. So I said to Judge Burka, “Well, I live on Capitol Hill and I’m afraid to walk to my car, you know, at night,” and la, la, la. And Judge Burka let me off. Bernie was mad. So, that was that. Then we went to dinner at Mama Ayesha's one night.
NORTON: So, obviously he was not too upset.
RAIMO: No, he didn’t ask me to go to dinner. This was like he was friends with friends [of mine] that I didn’t know about. Went to a birthday party for another friend and he was one of the guests.
NORTON: And this was at Mama Ayesha’s?
RAIMO: This is at Mama Ayesha’s and I said, “I know you. You prosecuted me for traffic tickets.” He was like, “Yeah, I know you too.” Then I went and got $1,100 dollars more in traffic tickets. I called my friend Kerry Quinn, who was also Bernie’s friend.
NORTON: How long did it take you to get the new $1,100 bucks?
RAIMO: Oh, not long because I think they forgot about $500 the first time. I think I already had $500 left over. Then I racked up another bunch.
NORTON: These are parking tickets mostly, or are they …
RAIMO: Parking tickets. I would park by fire hydrants. I would park too close to the intersection, you know. Like I was going to walk from H Street to [my apartment on] Fourth Street in the night? No!
NORTON: So, you’re still living in the apartment on Fourth Street at this point?
RAIMO: Still I was on Fourth Street with Kathleen Hagen at that time.
NORTON: And you’re teaching at DeMatha?
RAIMO: No. Then what was I doing? Oh, then I was still in graduate school. I was going back and forth. I had the apartment, but I would go over there during the week. I sort of was itinerant. I met Bernie and then I got the more tickets. Then I called my friend Kerry Quinn. He said, “You got to suck it up and call Bernie Raimo. It’s the only way you’re going to get out of this.”
So, I sucked it up and I called him. He said, “Okay, we’re going to go before the judge and here’s what you say. You’re going to say exactly these things. Look straight ahead. Say exactly what I told you to say.” I did, but the judge asked me something that I didn’t know the answer to. So, I looked over to him. And the judge went, “Mr. Raimo do you know this person? See me in my chambers.” So, that was bad.
Then I had to pay the tickets. That time I got on the hook. I had to pay the tickets. I had to go every week, every two weeks to Bernie’s office and pay my debt so that he would be able to say that I was paying off these tickets that he was in trouble for. So, of course he had to ask me out to dinner and this and that and this and that. We got married. [Norton laughs]
NORTON: How long after the first parking ticket prosecution did you get married?
RAIMO: Three and a half months. Very fast. Very quick. Quick enough that I got a job at Thomas Stone High School down in Charles County. I applied to DC Public Schools. They weren’t having me. I applied to Thomas Stone High School. Got the job there in special ed.
NORTON: That was what you went to graduate school for, the special ed?
RAIMO: That is when I went to graduate school for special ed. Then we lived on Ninth and North Carolina [SE] in that building that looks like a white castle there at Ninth and North Carolina. I know you would know it if you…
NORTON: Yes, I do. I know exactly. Yes.
RAIMO: That’s where we lived. Well, he lived there already. Then I moved in with him. Then in December we went home to my parents’ house on the Eastern Shore for Christmas. We got a telephone call from his friend who said, “Bernie, I’m in your apartment.” Bernie said, “You are?” “Yeah. You want to know how I got in?’ “No, how’d you get in?” “Through the hole the firemen chopped in the wall.”
Our building had caught on fire and burned. Most of our wedding presents—we didn’t have a big wedding. We only had like 50 people there. Little, very small. My sister had had a huge wedding. I was having none of it. Most of our stuff, our clothes, everything got wrecked. So, it got fixed back up, but then we moved to Ninth and East Capitol Street in an apartment in the basement there. In 916 East Capitol Street [NE].
NORTON: How long did you live there, roughly?
RAIMO: Well, we lived in that apartment for several years because the upstairs apartment became available, which was better that the basement apartment. We loved our landlord, Mr. Jerden, who was very southern, who nobody got along with, but we did. He worked on the Hill for years and knew a lot of people Bernie knew. So, we moved up to the better apartment on the first floor. We had Sarah while we were there in that apartment.
NORTON: The apartment at the corner of Sixth and,,,
RAIMO: In the middle of Ninth and East Capitol. It’s still there, but I think it’s single family now with one basement rental unit, I think. We were there and I didn’t work for six years. That was when the big deal was where to go school.
NORTON: Let me ask you this just for reference. What year was Sarah born?
RAIMO: Sarah was born in 1977.
NORTON: Then from the time she was born, for how many years you didn’t work?
RAIMO: Six, because Peter was born in that time. I was home then and that’s when I got all involved in Peabody. I went and looked at schools. I went and looked at Capitol Hill Day School and I was like, “Humm, for this money, really?” You know. Then Peggy, who’d always been here, had sent John to Peabody. Peggy was like, “You have to go see Peabody.”
NORTON: This is Peggy O’Brien. Did you send your kids to any of the pre-schools or any of that kind of stuff?
RAIMO: Yeah. Pre-school. That was in Capitol Hill Baptist Church, was it? The one right by Peabody.
NORTON: Was that the cooperative pre-school?
RAIMO: Cooperative, yes. And Trixie, I think, was the teacher then. Trixie. We went to Trixie. Then we had to decide on a school. Then Peggy said, “You got to go see this.” I went to the open house. I saw Veola [Jackson, the principal] and I was like, “Well, that’s it.”
NORTON: Since we’re doing this for posterity, can you describe Veola?
RAIMO: Veola Jackson, Veola May Jackson, came down those stairs looking like Lena Horne. I mean, I’m telling you, right? She had it going on. She sat there and she was the most dynamic, most creative … You know, I’d been teaching school for five, six years by then. You know, I’d been in different school settings. I was, like, “Wow, this lady has got it. I mean, she’s got it.” I said, “I’m hitching my wagon to this star. This is where we’re going.”
NORTON: This was Sarah.
RAIMO: This was Sarah. She was in pre-K. That’s where she went to Pre-K. That’s where I met Lois Burke. And, oh my goodness, Lois Kauffman was the other pre-K teacher. We didn’t get Lois Kauffman, we got Debbie Murphy.
I can remember Lois Burke. We took the kids to the school for the first day, and [Lois’s daughter] Caitlyn kept trying to get out and Lois was holding the classroom door closed. Most of the parents were going like, “Oh honey!” Lois is like, “She’s staying in there and she’s not getting out. This is it.” Honestly, oh my God! It was the funniest thing I ever saw. Sarah took to it great. It was great. Then that’s where I met Mary Donovan and just a whole lot of people there. Oh, then I started doing all that volunteer work there.
NORTON: Describe what kind of volunteer work you were doing there. This was before or after Peter got in?
RAIMO: This is before. This was when Sarah was there. Peter was a baby. A little, chubby baby. I would bring him along to do this stuff. That’s where I met Cathy Pfeiffer, because we were there with chubby babies packing the cookies and doing all this volunteer stuff.
NORTON: That would have been Lucy [Pfeiffer] in Cathy’s …
RAIMO: No, Lucy was already a year ahead of Sarah.
NORTON: Okay, so it would have been Ellen [Pfeiffer].
RAIMO: This was Ellen. Ellen was bigger. Ellen was walking around. Peter wasn’t walking around, because if Peter had been walking around, there would have been no packing cookies because he would have been hell on wheels.
Then I started doing all of this stuff for Veola. She would ask me to do all this community outreach. “Do this, do that. Liaison with these different organizations, with CHAW [Capitol Hill Arts Workshop at Seventh and G Streets SE], bring classes in. Do this, do that.” I did all this stuff. Then when Peter got big enough to go to school—first he went to Frances Slaughter, the little nursery school with Frances, darling Frances who was the best thing that God ever made on earth. [See the Frances Slaughter interview on this website.] He would still be in diapers now if it weren’t for her. [Norton laughs] Then he was going to go to school and I sent him to River Park [Nursery School at that time located in River Park townhouse and apartment development in SW Washington]. And I hated it. I mean, I really hated it.
NORTON: Why did you hate about River Park at that point?
RAIMO: It was the opposite of Frances. Frances was like, “Everybody loves everybody! We hug each other. We tell each other we love each other.” River Park was like, “No hugging, no touching.” No. Teachers were Christine and Louise. Peter couldn’t say “Louise.” He said, “Wooleeze, Wooleeze.” She would cut, “Louise, Louise.” She was in his face. He would ask me every day, “Is today a holiday?” Because he didn’t want to go. I thought, “I am paying money for this?”
NORTON: How long did you keep him there?
RAIMO: Till November. I went to my first teacher conference and when they talked about other children and compared children to children, I said, “Oh, no, no, no. Homey don’t play this.”
NORTON: “Homey don’t play this?” I love this.
RAIMO: “Homey don’t play this.” So, I went and I said to Veola, “I’m going to go back to work part time.” And I did. I went back to work at Notre Dame, that was the girls’ school where Gonzaga [North Capitol and K Streets NW] is. They shared the campus. I shared a class with another guy who wanted to become a writer. How I ever got myself in these situations … But I only had to do morning and he did afternoon. So, Veola said, “Okay.” Peter was too really little to go to Peabody in the morning. He wasn’t the right age. But he was born in January. So, he was only one month too late. So, she said, “I’m going to squeeze…”
NORTON: But the cutoff at that point was the end of the year, right?
RAIMO: Right. So she said, “I’ll squeeze him in.” Okay, so she squeezed him in. That was a big favor. So he went to public school.
NORTON: How much time had you been spending on your volunteer work each day before you went back to paid work?
RAIMO: Oh I spent a couple of hours each day and then I also volunteered for the Arc of DC [1825 K Street NW] and I had a surrogate son. People think you had a baby but you really didn’t. Kids who were abandoned at Forest Haven [institution for people with intellectual disability in Laurel Maryland] and they had no parents. You were their educational representative. I had that person and I sued the District on behalf of him. That lawsuit took years. We were in court for years and years for that.
NORTON: But it started while you were just doing this volunteer work before you went back to …
RAIMO: Yes, it started when he was, oh, a newborn baby. So I’d been doing that for a long time. That helped me a lot later, anyway. I taught at Notre Dame for a year and then Veola said, “I need you to work here. You should work here.” I said, “Yeah, okay.” She said, “I’m going to hire you in an assistant principal’s position only WAE, which means While Actually Employed. She could take a position that she had, because at that time there was something called DAPS [meaning lost to memory]. Certain schools had DAPS which meant that you were a really, really good principal, you got your own budget. So, you could play with it. You got so many positions and you could allocate those position.
NORTON: Veola was one of those.
RAIMO: Veola was the queen of DAPS, believe you me. She would also find out … She also got herself, because she was so brutally honest … They would also use it to try to assign you ghost employees. She would suddenly see on our roster that there was somebody who didn’t really work there. They did that to pay [something] like graft. They paid other people who really weren’t working at all. You’d end up having a custodian that you’d never seen in your life. Veola would be like, “Uh, uh, uh, he doesn’t work here.” That made her not popular downtown, because they did not like that. You were supposed go along and get along.
Anyway, she took one extra position, I think it was a librarian’s position, and converted it to WAE. An agreement was that I only had to work 25 hours a week. I didn’t get any benefits, which I didn’t care, because Bernie had benefits on the Hill. I worked those hours and did that. I did that for years. A long time, until she died [in 1991], I was there. It was great because it was great for me. I picked the kids up at the end of the day. They were there. That was the whole time that everybody got into the brouhaha about the Cluster.
NORTON: Why don’t you describe the Cluster because I’ve looked and I saw, for example, there was at one point, Bob Boyd [DC school board member and Ward 6 representative] was sort of coming up with this idea. He had a proposal called Schools on the Hill or something like that.
RAIMO: He did.
NORTON: Why don’t you go ahead and describe it a little bit.
RAIMO: I don’t know if I remember exactly, but I remember, first of all, we all had to work to get Bob Boyd elected to the school [board]. That was a big thing.
NORTON: Did you work in that election?
RAIMO: Oh, my God. Sarah wrote a letter to him. She was maybe four or five. She wrote a letter, “Dear Bob Boyd, my mom works for you. Let her out.” I was like, “Okay.”
NORTON: I remember because he won. It was “Landslide Bob.” He won by what, 17 or 13 votes or something like that.
RAIMO: Yup, we fought for him. Everybody had this idea because remember then that Peabody only went to fourth grade. Peabody, at that point, you could really only get in if you were in-boundary. There was no room in Peabody. The in-boundary people at Brent went to Brent. The in-boundary people at Peabody went to Peabody. But, if people moved like here to Kentucky Avenue, you couldn’t go to Peabody.
NORTON: Well, Jackson [Norton’s son] got in there somehow, so …
RAIMO: You had to get on a wait list.
NORTON: Right. You had to camp out in the front yard or whatever it was.
RAIMO: Remember that first day when you would drive down there and sign up and get yourself in there. It was huge. Lots of people left because they couldn’t get in. They weren’t going to pay for the Day School. So, they would end up moving to the ’burbs. I always thought that was awful. Everybody thought that was awful. Everybody was worried about “Where are we going to go after fourth grade?” Bob had this idea, “Well, there’s the Stuart building [E Street NE between Fourth and Fifth Streets]. They’re going to close it.” Everybody knew that Stuart was going to get closed.
NORTON: And that was a junior high at that point, right?
RAIMO: It was a junior high. All the kids that want to go to junior high went to Hine [Pennsylvania Avenue SE between Seventh and Eighth Streets]. Hine was on the bus route. It was easy to get to. Stuart was off the beaten path. So, he has this great idea that if we could … We didn’t have enough students to be a feeder for Stuart, because Peabody couldn’t be a feeder because it was too small.
NORTON: It only went to fourth too.
RAIMO: It only went to fourth and it only had two grades per class. It was two Pre-Ks, two one, two. That wasn’t enough to fill that whole building of Stuart. But, if we merged with Watkins [11h and E Streets SE] and made two elementary schools, and made them a feeder, then that would be enough to take over the Stuart building. The big thing was, “Okay, we’re going to do this but there are going to be two side-by-side elementary schools and how are we going to convince people that are eligible to go to Peabody, to go over to this other building?”
NORTON: To Watkins.
RAIMO: To Watkins.
NORTON: Which is much bigger.
RAIMO: Which was much bigger and much more diverse. I mean, Peabody at that point was 60% white. Watkins was 90% black.
NORTON: Potomac Gardens [Public housing project between G and I Streets SE and 12th and 13th Streets SE] was in district for Watkins, wasn’t it?
RAIMO: Not actually, only part. That was very weird. Potomac Gardens, part of it was. I don’t know how that worked. It was like there was a gerrymandered line that went down there. But, most of the kids from Potomac Gardens went to Watkins. That was a big sticking point for a lot of people. For those of us that it wasn’t a sticking [point] for, it was like a plus, because we were like, “Why shouldn’t those kids have the same thing our kids have? What’s the matter with you people?” Then they were like, “Well, you’re not realistic and you’re not…”
NORTON: Who’s they?
RAIMO: I’m not going to tell you who they are.
NORTON: I’m not asking you for names, I’m just—the people that were opposed to the idea.
RAIMO: “Get real, this in never going to happen.” “It’s a matter of demographics.” “ The tipping point.” Oh, there was a lot of talk about the tipping point and what the tipping point was.
NORTON: In terms of the ratio.
RAIMO: Of the ratio of race. There were people who had different ideas of tipping points. I was like, “Oh, I cannot even believe this.” Then there were people who were saying, “Well, if my child goes to Watkins, they won’t have any peers.” “Who are all these other kids there? They’re not your child’s peers? Who are they? Could you explain?” Then there were like, “You’re condescending, you’re horrible.” It got very bad. Veola, being clever as she was, said, “We were going to do it.” I remember going to the meeting in Vince Reed’s office, who was the superintendent then, and he said, “Okay. This has been proposed.” Mary Donovan was president of the PTA.
NORTON: At that point she was Mary Donovan Mattioli, right? Married to Roger, wasn’t she?
RAIMO: Right, but then she changed her name to Mary Mattioli Donovan at some point. That was Mary. She’s an original. Love her. We went down there and Vincent Reed said to Veola, “Girl, don’t get ahead of yourself. You think you can run three schools?” She looked at him and she said, “I don’t want to say. ‘boy.’ But I’m going to say ‘boy.’ You think you can run a whole school system? I can run three schools.” It was like “Ooh, ooh, ooh. Ooh, ooh.” I was like, “You go.” [Norton laughs]
NORTON: In a sense we’ve got a break in the action here. Two things. One, it was initially Edmonds-Peabody, wasn’t it?
RAIMO: Originally there was the Edmonds building that was over on D [Street NE] up at [Ninth] and D. It was Edmonds-Peabody. But, really only African American kids were in Edmonds. White kids were in Peabody. Then the school system decided that … First, Veola decided she was going to try to do that. That didn’t really go too far. Only Jan MacKinnon [Boyd staffer—see her Overbeck interview] was big on trying to make Edmonds-Peabody work out. Then the school system decided they were going to close Edmonds and make it the pension center, because they decided the building was inadequate and whatever, and they weren’t going to close Edmonds anyway. So that became a non-starter. Even if we did Edmonds, and Bob Boyd discussed this, it wouldn’t have been big enough. We wouldn’t have the bodies. But Watkins was big enough.
NORTON: Stuart was going to then take the Hobson middle school, right? I mean Stuart was going to …
RAIMO: There wasn’t any Hobson. We made that up.
NORTON: When did Hobson get started?
NORTON: Once we got the Stuart building, then we decided to make from fourth grade up ––fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth in Stuart––to rename it Stuart-Hobson after Julius Hobson.
NORTON: Wasn’t Hobson the top floor of Watkins for a little while?
RAIMO: For a little while. For the first year or two that it got started, they put Hobson up there because the Stuart building needed, oh, it needed some work! If you saw the hallways, they were actually tarred. It was disgusting. The bathrooms … The principal there, I can’t remember her name, I wish I could. She literally had herself barricaded in her office. She did not come out because those kids were running the place. There were no stall doors on any bathrooms. Everything was open. It was a mess. The cafeteria, you wouldn’t have fed your dog in the cafeteria it was so awful. There had to be a whole lot done up there.
So they went up to the top floor for a while, because the idea was Watkins was going to get bigger. We were going to get a whole lot more people which didn’t really happen, but kind of. We had to take a whole lot of out-of-boundary people in Watkins to begin with because we just weren’t filling it up. We just weren’t. But when word got around to, especially––it was very interesting––Hill people who lived in [Wards] Seven and Eight, who worked on the Hill … This was a convenient place to drop their kids off. They went to Watkins. But then we had the whole problem …
NORTON: When you say Seven and Eight, Wards Seven and Eight, [that’s] the other side of the river [Anacostia River] essentially, yes?
RAIMO: Other side of the river that be. It became … like they went to Hine. It became … This was a good place for your kids to go. It was better than over there on “that side.”
NORTON: I think they also had some kids from the military bases too, didn’t they?
RAIMO: Oh, we always had them. We loved them. Yeah, from the military bases because they could go anywhere. They did have two schools right there by the bases that they were in-boundary for but because they were military, they could go to any school in the city they wanted to. There was a push to go down there and recruit some of those families to come up.
NORTON: So how did it work? There was this unpleasantness, but you all decided to go right ahead. What happened then?
RAIMO: Veola, because she was a genius, decided to take the best teachers from Peabody, the legendary ones, and move them to Watkins. It was like, “You want the best, you best go.” At that point we had Anne Gay because there was the big kerfluffle at St. Peter’s. Anne Gay [pre-K and kindergarten teacher at St. Peter’s] had applied to be the principal at St. Peter’s. St. Peter’s families wanted her. There was this big thing about people, Catholic, Catholic. She was a married and divorced person. I don’t really think it was because she was divorced, because they ended up hiring Mary Randolph, whose husband had also been divorced. So, I think it was a racial thing. But, whatever. They’ll hate me for that. They didn’t hire Anne Gay.
I called Veola that day when I found it out. I said, “This is the best kindergarten teacher I’ve ever seen in my life. If we don’t get her, we’re going to kick ourselves in the butt.” She said, “Call her right now.” I called her. I said, “Come talk to Veola, she wants to talk to you.” Anne went up and talked to Veola. They put her, the first year, at Watkins, right there. Everybody on the Hill knew who Anne Gay was.
Then she took Debbie Murphy. Everybody knew Debbie Murphy, right? She took Ruby Gary. Everybody knew Ruby Gary. So, the best of the best were over there. Laura Squire. They went to Watkins. Some of [the parents] said, “Well, I wanted Peter to have Debbie Murphy or Anne Gay.” I was like, “Peter be going.” He went to Watkins. Of course, Sarah was [there]. Peabody then only went to third grade, because then we did the cut off at three. You had to go to Watkins for fourth. That was part of the big fight, because there were a lot of people that were in three that thought they were going to stay in Peabody until four, and they weren’t. They were going to Watkins.
NORTON: Was that right off the bat, I mean, right at the beginning you cut it off at third grade?
RAIMO: Right off the bat you were going to Watkins for four. I think that’s why she moved Ruby over there. But anyway, it still didn’t soften the blow. There was a big exodus at four. A big, big exodus at four. I sent Peter over there. Peter was the only white kid in his class, in Debbie Murphy’s class. It was just fine. Sarah had a bunch of pals. Beth O’Brien, Heather Banta, Sarah Grace Rimensnyder. There were a bunch of kids that went over there to the fourth grade. They had a great time. Alice Jayne was there in second grade, I think. So, there were a whole bunch of kids that went there.
NORTON: And Jackson went there too.
RAIMO: Jackson was there. They loved when Alice would arrange the football games. When Alice got out of Watkins, Peter said, “Football has never been the same.” [Norton laughs] Nobody could organize football like Alice. There were the diehard people that went. There was the bad feeling about the people that didn’t go. Cathy Pfeiffer actually pushed someone into her bushes. Off her front porch into the bushes. She was so mad.
NORTON: In a dispute over this?
RAIMO: Yes. She was so mad. She [the other person] said, “I would never send my kids there.” Cathy went, “Humph!” I was like, “Oh you did it.” But she felt passionately about lots of things. She could get mad. She could also get so generous and wonderful, but she got mad that time. Actually, thinking back on it, this person needed to be pushed into the bushes. If I could today, I would push her in the bushes myself. So, we all went and it made some bad feelings, but it also, as you know, made a great sense of solidarity with all of us who were there. It was a great feeling. Now I read these books [about] “nice” white parents and I think, “Did we do that? Were we like that? Were we the people that imposed our will on other people?” I don’t know.
NORTON: Yeah, who knows? Who knows?
RAIMO: Who knows? But now, whoever the people were about the tipping point thing … Well, not when I look around at Tyler [elementary school on G Street SE between 10th and 11th Streets] and all these places … It’s all different now, isn’t it? It’s all different. I drove past Tyler the other day on the way to the plants store. The playground was just wonderful to see. It was wonderful. But it made me tear up because I could think of Texas [mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas] and thought if somebody walked on this playground … I couldn’t imagine what they could do. Anyway, it worked out in the end.
NORTON: Let me ask it this way … It always seemed to me a little bit that among the white parents there was a certain amount of … You needed a support group sort of saying that what you were doing was okay.
RAIMO: Oh, you did, you did.
NORTON: That may the nice white parents or it might be a little bit racist.
RAIMO: Oh no, we definitely needed to prop each other up a little bit.
NORTON: There were, I mean, they’re famous, the mothers who were the real driving forces in all this stuff. You’ve talked about Mary Donovan and Cathy and who else, let’s see …
RAIMO: Mary Jayne for sure. Linda [Norton] for sure. Adele [Robey] for some of that time. Who were the other macho moms who were just …
NORTON: I know Martha Marble was involved somewhere.
RAIMO: Oh, Martha Marble, God yes, Martha Marble. She was, she was.
NORTON: You called them the “macho moms.” Who came up with that term?
RAIMO: Well, I think that was Bruce Gwinn. Even though Vinia wasn’t in the [school]. Their kids always went to Catholic school. Bruce called us the “macho mans” and then somebody else made it feminine. We were always pushing for the best thing. If there was a thing for our kids that would make Capitol Hill more family friendly, that would be anything to make it better for kids … That was the whole Cheverly Pool thing. When people, Stephanie Epstein and all these people, Sue Wodatch … Oh my God, they found out from these people at Cheverly that we could go to this swim club because they were going to have to close it, because they didn’t have enough people in Cheverly to go to the swim club.
NORTON: So, they needed people.
RAIMO: They wanted people, they needed people. They went around and recruited people to come. It was not expensive at all. They called it the Cheverly Swim and Racket Club. Really. You’ve been there. It was not the Cheverly Swim and Racket Club to tell you the truth.
NORTON: It was a pool.
RAIMO: It was a pool with some courts. But it was great.
NORTON: And it had a ton of Capitol Hill people.
RAIMO: And it had a snack bar and provided my son employment for years. He ran the snack bar. It was very good for him. It was great.
NORTON: We’ve talked about weathering the change over to the Cluster. Let me ask you this. In various brochures and publications, I’ve seen it be called the Capitol Hill Cluster School or the Capitol Hill Cluster Schools. I don’t know if there was ever a distinction made.
RAIMO: We were very insistent then that it was the Capitol Hill Cluster School. It was one school. It was Pre-K through eighth and it was one school. We never wanted it to be schools. Now it’s got three separate principals. It’s different now.
NORTON: It doesn’t have the overall Veola Jackson type who’s over all the…
RAIMO: There was only one of her.
NORTON: There were the assistant principals at the various campuses.
RAIMO: There were assistant principals and we got more. That was how finally I had my last job for the last couple of years. She actually got four assistant principals, only she converted one to WAE. Then half of one position was something else. That one was me. That’s how I was there for the last. Once you were the Cluster that’s how I was there. She got one for each school and then an extra because there was only one principal and she was entitled to three, but she didn’t need them. She ran that place with an iron first. That was how she did it.
I didn’t really realize then that she was ill. I don’t think that anyone [did]. She didn’t know it. I don’t think anyone … No one knew. I just always remembered when you went somewhere with Veola, and you had to go upstairs, then you would stop and talk on the landings. Now I realized that she stopped and talked so she could breathe, because she couldn’t. I always thought that, well, “She’s ridiculous, she wears these heels that are like a half a story high. Of course, she needs a rest.” We had Mr. McKennelly who was the security officer. Remember Mr. McKennelly? He would drive us around from building to building. When there was something that…
NORTON: You and Veola?
RAIMO: Me and Veola. They called me the White Shadow. Veola and I would [say], “Something’s happening over here. Get in the car Mr. McKennelly. Drive us over there.” We’d go over there and deal with whatever was happening over there. Then, “Mr. McKennelly drive us back.” We were never in the same office every day. We were always [moving], and she would tell me at night, “Meet me wherever in the morning. Meet me here, meet me there.” Wherever we were going to be, to do whatever we were going to do the next day. She really had to move it. We had to move it and shake it to run three schools. But we did it. Then she got sick and it was very sudden.
NORTON: That she got sick. How long was that after essentially the Cluster …
RAIMO: Oh, it was a while. When Veola got sick, Sarah was in the eighth grade, so Sarah had started. The cluster had started when Sarah was in three going into four. So that was five whole years that Veola ran the Cluster. She started to have really, really bad breathing problems. Her husband really didn’t want to hear it.
NORTON: He was a Secret Service guy, wasn’t he? Something.
RAIMO: Yes, he was very interesting. He was a US Marshall. He was on Bobby Kennedy’s detail after Jack Kennedy was shot. He was at Hickory Hill [Robert F. Kennedy’s house]. He stayed there.
NORTON: Out in McLean.
RAIMO: Out in McLean. He said Bobby Kennedy drove him crazy, because he would not stay in the house. He would go out. He would walk around. They would be like, “He’s on the move, We gotta get him back in the house, get him back in the house.”
He [her husband] couldn’t, he didn’t want to face up to it. I drove her to the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore. That’s when they told her that she had pulmonary hypertension and also scleroderma. So, the pulmonary hypertension, she’d had all of her life and she never knew she had it. I remember when we took her in the guy said, “You’ve never had any children have you?” And she said, “No.” He said, “Yeah, because you’d be dead. If you have pulmonary hypertension, you die in labor because your lungs flood and there’s nothing they can do if you’re undiagnosed. There’s nothing they can do to stop it.” She never did. But then she got scleroderma, which then was the hardening of the tissues that made the pulmonary hypertension worse. So she got really bad really fast, very, very fast. We had that big party for her at the Children’s Museum [at that time at Third and H Streets, NE]. I remember the last race we had.
NORTON: The race being the Capitol Hill Classic which was the big fundraiser for the…
RAIMO: Which was the huge thing. Skipper Nelson started it. We had it. She was going to ride in the pace car. She always rode in the pace car. I used to ride with her. The last four or five years I rode with her in the pace car. I didn’t think she was going to be able to get dressed to get there. But, she slept in her clothes and we got her there early, early in the morning. We got in the pace and we drove the pace car. I remember people being like, they knew then that she wasn’t well and they were like ecstatic along the route that Veola was in the car.
Then we had this big party for her at the Children’s Museum. We rented the floor of the Children’s Museum and we got there and the elevator was broken. We couldn’t get her up the stairs. John O’Brien and Michael Banta and Alex King and I can’t remember, some of the big boys, picked up the chair and carried it up two flights of stairs to the party. Unbelievable. There were people that were very mad at me. They said, “You’re having this party like it’s her funeral. Nothing’s wrong with her and she’s not going to die.” She was on oxygen. I don’t know what was wrong with them. She died on the first day of school in September.
NORTON: Do you remember what year it was?
RAIMO: It was the first year that Sarah went to high school. Maybe 90? I don’t know. I’d have to look . [Jackson died in 1991.]She died pretty fast.
NORTON: Did you keep working?
RAIMO: Oh, that new lady, she did not want me.
NORTON: That would be Dr. Flagg?
RAIMO: Yes. She did not want me and I did not want her.
NORTON: You stopped working at the Cluster when Veola died. I remember at some point, under Veola, the PTA actually paid for some of the teachers. Isn’t that right?
RAIMO: That’s true, that’s true.
NORTON: How did that work?
RAIMO: We had the money from the race and we had the money from the cookie drive. I really believed that the parent participation from the cookie drive was more universal than the participation from the race. Participation from the race was largely Capitol Hill people. You wanted your out-of-boundary people to participate [but they] were all single mothers, working families that didn’t have the time to do race meetings and do all that. They would go to their office. They would sell the hell out those cookies.
I was like, “What we need are better prizes. We’re going to get the best prizes we can get. We’re going to sell the hell out of those cookies.” That guy Dennis, that was the cookie guy, he loved me because we sold more cookies than anybody in Washington, DC. Nobody sold more cookies that we did. We made a lot of money on that cookie drive. So, between that and the race, we could afford … We bought a Spanish teacher. A couple of years we bought a Spanish teacher for Hobson.
NORTON: I think at one point Mr. Lewis was even being paid [this way] because I remember there was an announcement that he finally got on the payroll or something, Mr.Lewis the …
RAIMO: We had Mr. Lewis and Mr. Driver, remember Mr. Driver. There was the fight. We weren’t supposed to have two music teachers. Somebody had to go. Veola was trying to justify having Mr. Lewis for Watkins-Peabody, but they were like, “Elementary schools don’t get their own music teacher because elementary teachers are supposed to be certified in music.” So, they were supposed to be able to clap your hands, stupid stuff. Veola liked the little kids to sing.
NORTON: They were good too.
RAIMO: They were good. Mr. Lewis was great. Poor Sarah tried out for that chorus every single year. She sounded like Froggy the Gremlin. Finally, her fourth-grade year, he said. “You’re cute. You can stand in the front row, but only move your lips. Do not sing. Do not sing, Sarah.” And she didn’t.
Loved Peter. Said he had perfect pitch, but he was so awfully behaved that Mr. Lewis would sit him on the piano, on top, and he would put his arm on him and then teach the rest of the people while he held Peter on the piano. I was like, “Oh my God, this is really going a bridge too far.”
He was great. But we had to get him. We had to make him WAE for a while which was bad because Mr. Lewis was a single man, so he didn’t have benefits. So, we converted a position to get him WAE for, I think, two years. That was really, really hard for him to do that. But he was very committed. He did that. Years later I met Mr. Lewis because Peter was dating this girl in Prince Georges County and she was in the all-Maryland Chorus of kids and he was the director, Mr. Lewis. I was like, “Ned Lewis!” We just hugged. He’s a great guy, a really great guy. He went on to do great stuff.
NORTON: Just for context, Mr. Driver had the jazz combo.
RAIMO: He [did]. Oh, Veola loved the jazz combo, please.
NORTON: Yes, I did too. Jackson was in the jazz combo.
RAIMO: He was in the jazz combo. They had some great kids in there.
NORTON: Patrick Serfass was in…
RAIMO: Patrick Serfass was in the jazz combo. Oh my gosh, yup. Mr. Driver was good too. But, you couldn’t have two music teachers. So, we paid for that for a year or two. I think Mr. Lewis we paid for two. I can’t remember if we … We always had three librarians which was always a thing because we had two good ones and one not so good one always. I won’t mention any names. We were always trying to move them around. Then Cathy Pfeiffer became the librarian at Watkins, which was great because she was great. There was always this juggling thing of what to pay for. What were you going to pay for with the money? We did have enough money. We surely had enough money to pay teachers, we did.
NORTON: Do you remember any other sort of fund raising events or was it just mostly the cookie drive and the…
RAIMO: Oh, family fun night. We had it in the basement of St. Peter’s because we had no place to have it.
NORTON: Right. That was a big hall.
RAIMO: We drove Father O’Sullivan … We got it there because I persuaded him to “Please, please, please,” and Cathy Pfeiffer went down there and was like, “Father, please, please, please.” So, we got it in there. We drove him nuts because people were out in the alley smoking and people were throwing things. He was up in the rectory and he was like tearing his hair out. Every year he would say to me, “That’s the end. That’s it. That’s the end.” I said, “I know if I send Cathy back there, he’s never going to tell her no. He’s never going to tell her no.” So, we had it there for years and that made money too.
NORTON: You and Cathy were both members of St. Peter’s, right?
RAIMO: Uh huh. There were a lot of people that felt badly that we didn’t send our kids to St. Peter’s school. Because Bernie and I never went to public school. I don’t think Cathy ever went. Cathy might have because her mother was a PE teacher in public schools, so she might have gone maybe when she was little. I had never gone to a public school. Bernie had never gone to a public school. First time I ever put my foot in public school was when I taught in one. It always assumed, and my parents assumed, that our kids would go to Catholic school. I was like, “Eh, maybe I had enough of that. Catholic high school is good enough. We’ll just do this now.”
NORTON: So, yeah and you did send your kids to; once they get; did they both go straight through Stuart-Hobson?
RAIMO: No. Peter didn’t. There was some resentment about me once Veola died. Sarah had already graduated and she went to Visitation [Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School]. Peter was still there and he was in the fifth grade going into the sixth grade. I had this meeting there with Karen Griffin and she told me, “There’s nothing else we can teach him here.” In other words, get him out. So, we sent him to St. Anselm’s [St. Anselm’s Abbey School in NE DC].
NORTON: Who’s Karen Griffin?
RAIMO: Karen Griffin was the Special Education Coordinator, who I never got along with. Then she became an assistant principal after Veola died. She just never really liked me and never really liked Peter. So, Bernie and I were hysterical because we were like, “Where’s he going to go? Sixth grade, there’s no place to go in sixth grade.” And so we said, “St. Anselm’s.” We applied to St. Anselm’s and they took him right away. It was a disaster. Just a disaster. That was fine. He stayed there for three years. He went to Gonzaga and that was fine. So, it worked out. There were a lot of Hill kids that went to Gonzaga. There was a little core group.
NORTON: I guess Cathy’s kids went to Visitation and Gonzaga too?
RAIMO: Oh, yes. We always stuck together on schools. Because Visitation, that’s a trek over there. There is no really straight public transportation to get [there] because Georgetown wouldn’t have a Metro [station]. It was like three bus lines. Marion Connelly, Cathy, me, Mary Weirich … There was a bunch of us that car pooled those girls over there to Visitation.
NORTON: How long did Cathy work as librarian at Watkins?
RAIMO: Oh God, she was there until she died. She loved that job. She loved that job.
NORTON: She did. I do remember the story though at one point she got suspended for a couple of days or something for …
RAIMO: Oh, yes. That was really awful because she had this little kid in her class who was deviling this other little kid who was disabled and was being just horrible to him. Finally, she had it and she smacked that kid. The parent went crazy, “She assaulted her child.” That child needed a good smack. [Norton laughs] Really, he did.
NORTON: I guess there were a lot of people in neighborhood ended up working for the Cluster. Laurie Siegel.
RAIMO: Oh, I hired Laurie Siegel. I hired Anne Gay and I called Veola about Laurie Siegel because, when I taught at Notre Dame, Laurie Siegel and Sarah Hill were both teaching there. Then, Notre Dame was going to close. I went to Veola and said, “Best art teacher. Best English teacher I ever saw, upper grade English teacher. You have to get them.” She hired them. They went to work there.
NORTON: After Veola died, you quit or did…
RAIMO: I got there and my stuff was in the hall. Helen Flagg had put my stuff in the hall. I was like, “Well, see ya.” I didn’t intend to stay there anyway. So, that was fine with me.
NORTON: What did you do next?
RAIMO: My dad was real, real sick then, so I spent a whole year going back and forth to the Eastern Shore because he was very, very sick and then he died. He was only 69 years old. Then I started looking for a job. There was this guy that worked for Bernie, worked with Bernie, and he said, “I know of this little special education school in Arlington that’s in really, really bad shape and they need somebody to come there and maybe Sharon should go and interview for it.” So, I did. That’s when I got the job at St. Coletta’s.
NORTON: Where was it in Arlington?
RAIMO: Then it was in Clarendon. It was in the basement of the Clarendon Presbyterian Church.
NORTON: But it was the Catholic …
RAIMO: It was a Catholic school, but it had started out at St. Charles Borromeo in Clarendon and then it outgrew St. Charles Borromeo and then it went to the basement of the Clarendon Presbyterian Church. When I tell you it was a wreck, it was a wreck. It had 19 kids and a budget of about $210,000. I said, “Well, we’re either going to fix this or we’re going to get rid of it.”
NORTON: What was the range of students that went there?
RAIMO: They ranged from very seriously disabled to moderate. Some parents who really were not accepting of how severely disabled their kids were wanted to pretend that they went to Catholic school. Didn’t know why we couldn’t have uniforms. I was like, “Really, are you out of your minds here?” They were all paying tuition. They paid $5,000 a year when it cost $35,000 to have the kid there. This wasn’t going to make it.
NORTON: Who was making up the difference?
RAIMO: Nobody. They had this one group of people, The Alhambra. Oh my god. It’s like the Shriners of Catholic people. They wore the little fezzes and the funny things and aprons and all that. They raised about $90,000 a year. But that didn’t make it up. The rule in Virginia in the Commonwealth is that they will not give any money to a sectarian organization. Not a hospital, not a school. If you’re sectarian, nothing in Virginia. The second year I was there, I went to see the bishop. I said, “Look. Either you’re going to ante up or we’re going non-sectarian.” He was like, “Go do God’s work.” I was like, “Okay, see you, see you.”
Took it non-sectarian and started to get—before I did that, I started to take people from Maryland and DC, because DC and Maryland don’t have those rules. So, they could send kids over and they would pay the full ride. We were actually operating on the backs of DC kids, which really wasn’t right either. But because I knew all these people from working for the Arc all those years, I could call all those advocates and lawyers up and say, “I’m here. You had a kid that nobody can serve. Send them to me.” They would do it. Then I could hire more therapists. I could hire more this, more that.
NORTON: But you’re still over in Virginia? And you’re still in the basement?
RAIMO: No, no. I only lasted there … They’d been there 31 years and I was like, “We’re out of here.” We were only there 11 months. I moved them to the Spout Run campus of Marymount [University] because the nursing school was closing and … We had this one little nun.
NORTON: Marymount’s nursing school was closing.
RAIMO: Right. So, I went to them and I said, “Look, I need to rent this from you. Give me this.” So, I moved them there and then we could move from 19 kids … We moved up to like 80 that we had, that we got in the first year that we were over there. Then I started to look for a place to buy. Then that was a whole big thing. You think the Cluster was bad. This was bad.
NORTON: I remember just sort of knowing a little about your efforts. Were you always looking over in this neighborhood, or was it…
RAIMO: Oh no, no. First, I bought in Alexandria. I bought that building first.
NORTON: Which was where?
RAIMO: That was in Old Town on Peyton Street in Old Town. That was before the Carlyle was built. It was a place that was in receivership and I got it for … First of all, Trammell Crow, which was the real estate agent, didn’t want to sell it to me. They said our use would “devalue the property.” So,I went to Jim Moran and I said, “Look, I tried to buy this and these people won’t sell it to me.”
NORTON: This is [Virginia] Congressman Moran.
RAIMO: Congressman Moran. He said, “Oh, no, no, no, I can’t help you. You got to go see Joe, Joe Kennedy.” So, I said, “Okay.” I said, “Bernie, can you get me in to see Joe?” “Yeah.” So, I got to see Joe. Joe says, “Come over here, come over here. Sit here right my me.” I sat right by him on his chair by the desk. He says, “I’m calling Tommy O’Neill. Tommy, don’t we know those bastards over at Trammell Crow?” Tip’s [former Massachusetts Congressman Tip O’Neill] son says, “Yeah, we know them.” He says, “I got this girl here. She’s doing God’s work and they’re giving her a bunch of crap. Call them up Tommy. Let’s bring them in line.” The next day those people were like I hung the moon. They couldn’t be nicer to me. I could buy the building, whatever, whatever. I had to learn how to do industrial revenue bonds. I didn’t know what industrial revenue bonds were. I had to figure it out pretty quick, and I did.
RAIMO: I didn’t have the money. I had $600,000 that these old white guys, old white Catholic guys had squirreled away for years telling people they were going to buy a building. After 30 years, they never bought a building. I told them, “Look.” They were fighting me. I said “Look.”
NORTON: Is this the Alhambra?
RAIMO: Oh yeah, and all these other crazy Catholics. I said, “Look. First of all, you are committing fraud because you’ve told these people for all these years that you’re buying a building and you’ve never bought a building and you never have any intention of buying a building. Now we’re going to buy a building. So, you’re going to do this right now.”
Then I found these people who knew about industrial revenue bonds and they taught me. I went to the City of Alexandria and I got industrial revenue bonds to make up the difference and we bought that building. Best deal ever. Paid $2.3 million for it. It’s now worth ten because it’s right there by the King Street Metro [station]. Good deal. We stayed there and then I rented the building next door to that building to start an adult program. Then I rented the building across the street from that building for the overflow. I had like a little campus there. I had three places going.
That’s when Anthony Williams [DC Mayor] came with his people and said, “Look, the District is under the Pettie’s lawsuit. It’s under Blackman-Jones. It’s under all these lawsuits for being not able to serve disabled kids. If I found you a piece of land, would you come build a building in the District?” I said, “Yeah, you get me a piece of land for free and I’ll come build a building in the District.” Then we started to look for property. That’s when I went to Sharon Ambrose [DC City Council member] and I said, “This is what he’s telling me, now.”
NORTON: What Williams is telling you?
RAIMO: Yeah. “And what are we going to do?” She was like, “Well this is a godsend to me because I’m very worried about this piece of property.” They were showing me places at St. Elizabeth’s. I’m telling you Randy, they had two-headed frogs there living on the ground. They had so much run off of I don’t know what was going out of those buildings, but it was like, I was like, “This is like a toxic dump.”
NORTON: This is over at St. E’s?
RAIMO: Oh, yes. I was like, “No.” Because you can’t build on the one beautiful part of St. E’s which is an historic park, which you aren’t even allowed to trim a bush. You can’t trim a bush unless you get permission to trim the bush. I was like, “No, I don’t want to be in the dump over here on St. E’s.
Sharon said, “Look, this piece of property down here at 19th and Independence, everybody’s afraid of it. They don’t want to take it. You won’t be afraid of it. You’ve always lived here. But what I’m afraid of is that they’re going to build a big expansion to the jail there and that’s going to ruin this property for forever. Then this is going to become a giant federal prison complex and I don’t want that to happen. So, you go there. You can be an anchor for this neighborhood and this school will be great. Nobody will dare build a jail beside this school. They’re not going to do it.” I said, “Okay if we can work this through the Council, I’ll take this piece of property, Okay, okay.” So, we did it. It wasn’t easy. There were people that didn’t want it and then there were neighborhood people that really didn’t want it.
RAIMO: Ooh, vicious, vicious people. You couldn’t believe it. Who are now my best friends, seriously. They love it there now. The think it’s the greatest thing ever, but they wanted a Walmart. They “could have a Target.” I was like, “Nobody was thinking of putting that there, people.” Seriously they weren’t.
NORTON: When is it that we’re talking about that you’re doing all this negotiation for 19th and Independence?
RAIMO: It started in 2000, 2001. That’s when Anthony Williams came. We looked at this property and then we identified the property 2002, 2003. 2002, probably, the land. Then it had to go through the Council. We started to do it and it turns out that all of that property, all 66 acres, was not owned by the District and the District never knew it.
NORTON: It was feds huh?
RAIMO: It was a federal reservation. There had to be a transfer of jurisdiction through GSA [federal General Services Administration]. Okay, so there was one guy, Terry Golden, who had been head of GSA. He was a supporter. He was with the Federal City Council. At that point he was the president of the Federal City Council. There was a woman, Susan Brita, who was still in GSA who had worked for Terry for years and years. Susan Brita is great. When they went to do this through GSA, GSA said, “Well, why are we just doing this 5 ? acres? This is stupid. We transfer the whole 66 acres to the District and give it to them.” That’s what they did. So, the District got the whole reservation.
When I would tell the neighbors that, they wouldn’t believe me. I would be like, “Look, I got this, you got this. This is what you got. You should be happy here.” “Why do we want this? It’s the morgue, it’s all these horrible things. It’s the STD clinic. Why do we want this?” I said, “Because it’s not always going to be that. Won’t always be that. It’s going to be something better. And the Metro is right here now.” The Stadium-Armory Metro [station] was already there. This was a perfect piece of property for me. Once we got there and we started to build it and we got Michael Graves, which of course was a giant coup.
NORTON: How did you get Michael Graves? I mean, he’s a world’s famous architect and everything.
RAIMO: I didn’t understand. I had somebody on my board who was with the Home Builders Association. I was looking at local people, [Phil] Esocoff, Amy Weinstein, local people. He said, “You know that one architect doesn’t cost more than another architect. I.M. Pei is going to charge you the same as Phil Esocoff. It’s percentage of the job. So, if you can interest somebody in this, you can get whoever you want.”
So, I started dialing the phone. I called up I.M. Pei and I called up Michael Graves and I called up Lawrence Jacobson, and I called up Bob Hillier. I called up these architects. Bob Hillier’s assistant called me back and Michael Graves called me back himself. I answered the phone. He said, “Hi, this is Michael Graves.” I was like, “Oh, hi, how are you?” He was real interested, but the board wanted to have this charette, so we had this guy who I love…
NORTON: What’s charette?
RAIMO: Like a design charette. Everybody would come and present what their ideas where. The board was going to decide who they thought was passionate about this and who was going to do the best job, whatever, whatever. I had this board member, Thomas Damato, great guy. He owed Restaurant Nora [then at 2132 Florida Avenue NW]. He turned over Restaurant Nora for the day. We had these guys come. They presented all the stuff. Bob Hillier came from Princeton. Michael Graves came from Princeton. These other people came. I remember Bob Hillier walked in …
The first person to present was Michael Graves. Bob Hillier walked in and he said, “Is Graves in the room?” I said, “Yes, he’s in there.” He said, “I’ll go home now. I’m out. If he’s in there, I’m not going to get this.” I was like, “Whatever, let’s see.” By the end of the day … Graves gave a very esoteric presentation. Well, he’s an artist, he paints, or he painted. He [said], “What a window is and what does a window mean, and what does…” And these people are sitting there going, “Hmm hmm … ” Finally at the end, the president of the board said, “I don’t hear any passion in this from you. I don’t see that you really, really want to do this.” And he said, “No, no, I really, really want to do this. I will commit to you that I will come down here for three days and I will follow these people and I will see how they work and I will commit to doing the best design I can.”
NORTON: Follow the folks in the school, the people …
RAIMO: Right, follow us around for three days. And he did. He came and he followed us around for three days. Then we started to work on doing it. I thought, “Well this would be great because the neighborhood now is going to love this, right? Because this is only the second Michael Graves building in the District.” Went to a meeting at Watkins with him. He was there, himself. He doesn’t come to a shit like that. They were horrible to him. HORRIBLE.
There’s this one man, I see him walking past here all the time. I’d like to go out and trip him. [The man said at the meeting,] “I’m a fan of Bruegel [Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel?] and I don’t agree with…” I was like, “What the hell? Who the hell are you, you weird little man?” They were not very polite.
But we forged ahead and started to do the whole thing. During the process of it, then [Graves] got really, really sick and became disabled himself. He would call me up and say things like, “Sharon, we’re trying to cut costs here. Why so many elevators? Why?” I’d be like, “Michael, we don’t want people to wait in line for elevators. You need an elevator; you need an elevator when you need it. I want seven elevators. I got to have seven elevators, no, really.” “Okay. Sharon, why do we have to do this?”
So then he became sick, really, really sick. We thought he was going to die sick. Then he ends up in rehab in Florida. And he’s calling me from rehab in Florida and he goes, “I can’t goddamn shave because they put the outlets all the way on the floor and I can’t bend over out of my chair to plug in my razor without knocking my head open on the floor. I understand what you mean.” [Norton laughs] I thought, “Good, we’re all good now.”
He first came to visit the building after it was built because he was never able to see it while it was going up because he was too sick. He came that day to see it and he’s there and he had a chair, great big chair. He’s rolling around on the first floor. “Want to go see the second floor?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Would you like to use the elevator?” [Norton laughs]
He was a great guy. We had a great relationship. I liked him a lot. He did a beautiful, beautiful job. Really spectacular job. We got it done. It opened in 2006. From the time we started talking, about 2001, it took that long to get it done. Got it done and moved. All the District kids we promised we’d move … We had 112 District kids at that point. [We promised] we’d move all District kids over from Virginia to here and then anybody else from Maryland and Virginia who raised their hands to go. That was the fight with the District because they only wanted District kids in there. I said, “Look, I will commit to 225 District kids in this building, but if I have families that I’ve already promised that I’m going to serve, I’m not kicking them out. So, they can stay, okay?” They said, “Okay.” So, they stayed. We ended up with 250 in there.
NORTON: So, there’s 200 District kids”
RAIMO: There’s 225 District kids and 25 other kids from other places in there. That fluctuates. It goes and goes. Then we still have the building in Alexandria. That’s all adults now. Everybody 22 and above. Then we have another building in Rockville. That’s all adults. So, we have 500 people all together.
NORTON: Well, that’s pretty impressive. You did pretty well. You’ve got recognized by a lot of other people too.
RAIMO: That was nice. That’s always embarrassing. You don’t do it for that.
NORTON: When did you retire?
RAIMO: I retired in January 2021 right at the beginning of the pandemic when we really didn’t know how that was going to be. I didn’t at that point … I knew that with the sort of board that I had that if I didn’t tell them a date certain, they would never hire somebody else. They would just drag it out, drag it out, drag it out.
NORTON: Who are the kind of folks that are on the board?
RAIMO: We have two boards, which is a little confusing. Since we’re a charter school … Oh that was the other thing. We came here, we’re supposed to be a public-private partnership. That was the deal with Anthony Williams. Anthony Williams, not mayor anymore. Another mayor comes in, [Adrian] Fenty. Fenty says, “Nope. [Our] people are not going forward unless you’re a charter school. We’re not paying this amount of money unless you’re a public school.” Well, I said, “The amount of money you’re going to pay for a public school doesn’t cover what I do.” “Well, we’ll pay this gap payment, but you’ve got to be a charter school.”
At that point, I had $4.5 million worth of steel on the ground. I had a hole there. I said, “What am I going to do? I’m going to have to do what they say, because I’ve got no choice here to move forward.” So, we had to write a charter. Then, we had to go on a six-month hiatus, write a charter, get the charter approved, which by the way is bullshit. I really believe you could [get] “Nick and Dottie’s Charter School” approved. Not that hard. You didn’t hear that from me. [Norton laughs]
Anyway, got it approved. Okay, so cut this deal. They’re going to pay a gap payment. We’re going to do this, finally get the building up. So, we have to have a charter school board and a corporate board, because the financing needs a corporate board. Charter school, you need a charter school board. In order to build the whole thing, we had to raise $16 million. That’s a whole other story, because we could finance $16 million based on the Alexandria building, I could borrow. But I had to raise sixteen. That was a whole other fund-raising thing that went on and on and on to raise that money.
If it weren’t for Peter and his friendship with a kid at his class at Gonzaga … This kid transfers in in his senior year. Nobody wants to be friends with a kid who transfers in in his senior year. Oh, Peter, he likes everybody. The kid lived in Southwest [DC]. I come home one day and there’s this kid on our couch, oh my god. “My name’s Andy.” Good, good. It turns out his father is Alan Mollohan, a “cardinal” [chair of an appropriations subcomittee] on the appropriations committee [House of Representatives]. “Oh, hello.” So, I invite him to stuff. We become friends. Peter and Andy are close friends. Peter gets Andy in the whole Capitol Hill group of everybody, Pat McCormally, all the kids in Capitol Hill. Alan is so grateful Andy has all these friends and he loves St. Coletta’s. He says, “I’ll help you. Don’t worry. You’ll get appropriations.”
And I did, $12 million from DC approps and from HUD [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] both. Then raised $6 million more. Got a million from Cafritz, a million from Freddie Mac [Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation], a million from Fannie Mae [Federal National Mortgage Association] and then the rest from different donors. Raised the money and built it. That was good. So, it’s there and it’s a good thing.
NORTON: It is good. I am running out of questions.
RAIMO: And you’re probably running out of juice.
NORTON: No, no, I’m plugged in, remember? These little microphones have batteries in them and the sound’s going fine. Have you anything else? Memories that you have? I wanted to ask you about Cathy [Pfeiffer], but we’ve already talked about her a fair amount.
RAIMO: She was just … You remember your boys going to the crazy stuff she would do at her house? The gingerbread-making house.
NORTON: Oh gosh, yes, the gingerbread making and then also Lucy, St. Lucy’s parties and all.
RAIMO: I thought that the house would burn down. When I saw those girls coming down with the lighted candles on their heads. I thought, “Sarah Raimo, you’re going to set yourself on fire.”
NORTON: That’s right, she was one of the St. Lucy attendants or whatever.
RAIMO: Oh god, Sarah Rimensnyder. They would all come down those stairs. I was like, “Aye yai yai.” But everybody loved it. She would put herself out for kids like anything.
NORTON: Yup, yup, she was a wonderful person.
RAIMO: Great loss, really.
NORTON: It was, it was. I will now turn it off. Thank you very much. I really appreciated. It’s been most fascinating. I’ve learned a lot.
END OF INTERVIEW