2007 Azalea Award

Hugs for a volunteer are good; an Azalea Award is even better. The nine 2007 volunteers who best carried out the Takoma spirit of doing good, as selected in an online poll of more than a thousand voters, received their awards in a Hollywood-style ceremony on May 12 at the community center.  Takoma Foundation president Pam Larson and Takoma Voice publisher Eric Bond emceed, and the Takoma Zone folk band played especially cripted tunes for the winning walks to the podium for the award, a terra cotta tile designed by John Hume. A crowd of friends cheered.

Takoma Volunteer:  Larissa Guran

Larissa Guran, who perhaps could have been termed a “sentimental favorite” for an Azalea, won the award one month after the midwifery birthing center she helped manage in Old Takoma for 20 years had to close for lack of money. The high cost of insurance that discouraged the participation of medical doctors was the final blow for the Takoma Women’s Health Center.  After the closing was announced a big bulletin board stationed outside the front door of the center filled up with notes of gratitude and affection from women whose children were delivered by midwives. “Midwifery offers women the best care available for a healthy, low-risk pregnancy, which includes most women,” Larissa says. She is continuing the fight to bring midwifery into the mainstream of American medicine as president of the Birth Choice Alliance, an education and advocacy group.

Takoma Educator:  Altagracia Richardson

Thomas Carruthers once said that the essence of being a great teacher is in making oneself “progressively unnecessary.”  Altagracia Richardson, by all accounts, is one of those teachers who helps her students find their own wings so that they may fly. The “nest”in which she does this good work is Rolling Terrace Elementary School, home to one of Montgomery County’s Spanish language immersion programs, a very popular school choice in Takoma Park.  Señora Richardson teaches fourth grade at RTES, where she is treasured. Bringing her home culture into the classroom, she makes social studies come alive with a focus on the indigenous cultures of Spanish-speaking island nations such as the Dominican Republic, where she is from. Parents and kids agree she is also a terrific math teacher, encouraging kids to be creative and try different strategies. And by the time this year’s kids bid “adios” to Señora Richardson in a couple of weeks, they will have filled thick notebooks many times over with their Spanish journal writing. “It’s amazing how much they write every day,” says one proud mom. 

As a parent of a current student puts it, Señora Richardson teaches “by encouragement and praise” and gets them to want to learn for learning’s sake.  Another says she “believes in teaching the whole child.” Thanks to the way she cares, checking in on how her students are oing socially and emotionally and not just academically, she seems to motivate them to want to do their very “best every day.”  Isn’t that what we all want for our kids?  Señora Richardson, you are a great teacher, but you are far from making yourself “progressively unnecessary” at Rolling Terrace. Our community has spoken: thank you for teaching so expertly.

—Liesl Groberg

Takoma Arts:  David Eisner, Institute of Musical Traditions

At the point Dave Eisner heard his name called out as an Azalea winner he was in the back of the room working on the soundboard for the awards ceremony, voluntarily giving up his evening.  Owner of the House of Musical Traditions in Old Takoma since 1972, Dave is the man behind the sound of music at most of Takoma’s best known events, including the September folk festival and the October Street festival. Operating from his store, he is also the creator of a Monday night concert series, vice-president of the association of Old Takoma merchants and the winner of several other awards. Last year he was named the Washington Area Music Association’s executive of the year.  In his free time he coaches youth basketball and roots with diehard passion for the Yankees.

Takoma Business Leader:  Mark Choe, Mark's Kitchen

As expected, Mark Choe was not able to accept his Azalea in person.  It was a Saturday evening, and he was occupied with customers at his always busy Old Takoma restaurant, Mark’s Kitchen. A vegetarian and low-fat menu has made his restaurant into a popular eatery at all times of the day, although it actually wasn’t quite the menu he had in mind when he first opened for business several years ago. He soon was perusing magazines and books, however, so he could adapt his Korean-style cooking to a health-conscious town. Almost as soon as he turned a profit he began returning a share – typically a percentage of whatever he brings in on a designated day — to local civic groups. Reserved, almost reticent, by personality, Mark has been an outgoing donor to the Takoma Foundation, Historic Takoma, the PTAs and just about every other non-profit group trying to improve the commonwealth.

Takoma Neighborhood Leader:  Seth Grimes

Since losing a race for mayor two years ago, Seth Grimes has concentrated his energy in the Old Town neighborhood where he and his wife Franca Brilliant and their children live. Stopping crime – “real crime and the perception of crime,” as he puts it – has been his focus as president of the Old Town Residents Association.  Commuters who walk home in the evenings through the neighborhoods around the Metro station have been a target of muggers over the years, and Seth has campaigned for more police patrols, including officers walking a beat and officers on bikes. He also helped launch the initiative Safe Takoma in cooperation with counterparts on the D. C. side of Takoma. “Street criminals can move easily over the boundary line, so crossjurisdictional cooperation is vital,” he says.

Takoma Spirit:  Takoma Pork

When we contacted the editorial staff of the Takoma Pork– comprised of Marjory Ruderman, Benjamin Purow, Molly Galvan and Hisao Yatsuhashi– to get the skinny on the satirical, semi-regular periodical’s genesis, this is what we received:  Conceived during a night of frenzied self-lovemaking, the Takoma Pork is the monstrous lovechild of two long-time Takoma Park couples. It was born the natural way, without drugs and with lots of cursing and heavy breathing. It was love at first sight for the four editors, who spanked it, swaddled it in soft, organic cotton, and have been attached to it ever since. Become a member of this inbred family by visiting takomapork.com.

Irreverent? We’d be disappointed if it was anything BUT. So how is it that the Pork, whose humor is based entirely on poking fun at our Takoman selves, won this year’s Azalea’s Spirit award, beating out long-time institutions like the TP Folk Festival and our 4th of July Celebration? Our theory is that the spirit of Takoma Park is in much more than just eating vegan bologna or putting organic corn oil in your gas tank. It’s being the only community inside the beltway that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Thanks for the belly laughs, Pork. Keep ‘em coming!

—Liesl Groberg

Takoma Coach:  Jay Salpekar

Perhaps what separates Jay Salpekar from other Takoma Soccer coaches is that he tolerates the game of soccer in his own home. “Accuracy is developed very rapidly” – that’s his philosophy. Jay and his wife Ally and their three kids have been “soccer crazy” since moving to Takoma Park eight years ago. They own almost all of the 14 different colors of league shirts. Coming straight from the field, he wore the orange jersey for the Azalea ceremony. When not coaching Jay watches soccer, plays soccer himself and works as a pediatric neuropsychiatrist at Children’s Hospital which, he says, “helps in coaching youth sports much less than one may think.” He stays in shape by challenging his players to race against him with a soccer ball up the steep terraced hillside at Takoma Park Middle. If he loses he must sing the Barney song. Thus far he hasn’t had to do much singing. On the other hand, his players will be older and faster next season, and he won’t be.

Takoma Youth Leader:  Babe Ruth League and Gary Weinstein

Most young kids take it for granted that they can play the storied national pastime on local diamonds.  It was before their time, back in the mid-1990’s, when a short bearded guy from Lincoln Avenue who once set stolen-base records as a kid in Baltimore took it upon himself to do all the nuts-and-bolts work necessary to establish a bona fide baseball and softball league for first-graders through high-schoolers who live in the area. The league is named after Babe Ruth because of its affiliation with a national association, but it might also be named for its local founder, Gary Weinstein—“Coach G”. If Gary says he put in a thousand hours to bring the league to life, he is probably lying; he probably put in two thousand. Perhaps even more of an achievement, he recruited dozens of other dads and moms to work with him and carry on the league that this spring signed up more than 1,200 bat swinging kids on 85 teams. “I love baseball, and I think everyone should love baseball,” he says. Although no longer the commissioner – that would be Takoma Park’s Rick Salzman — Gary still organizes a clinic for all rookie coaches each season, and until last season he was still coaching his son Zak. His wife Julie Wiatt accepted Gary’s Azalea for him. He had to miss the ceremony; he had tickets to a ballgame.

Takoma Environmental Leader:  Mike Tidwell, Chesapeake Climate Action Network

Mike Tidwell wears many hats, and all of them are green.  As the director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), which he founded in 2002, Tidwell works tirelessly to educate people about the threat of climate change. As CCAN’s Communication Director Anne Havemann said, “Mike is the most passionate activist I have ever met. He eats, sleeps, reads and breathes nothing but global warming.”  Among Tidwell’s published books are Bayou Farewell: The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast and The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities. His documentary film, We Are All Smith Islanders, depicts the dangers of global warming for Maryland, Virginia, and D.C. 

One of Tidwell’s great challenges is the heavy travel schedule he maintains in order to do his work as a climate activist. The planes, trains and automobiles he takes for speaking engagements all over the world emit carbon, for which he dutifully purchases offsets, though, as Havemann says, “offsetting is not as climate-friendly as not emitting [carbons] in the first place.”  Not only is Tidwell a great global neighbor, but he is a great neighbor.  You will often see him in Old Takoma “walking the walk,” that is, walking or biking wherever it is that he needs to go.  About once a season he opens his Willow Avenue house to anyone interested in his example of how to live comfortably while drastically reducing your energy consumption.  Throw open the doors of your home to a bunch of strangers? Why not? Says CCAN staffer Diana Dascalu-Joffe, “This isn’t just a job for us, it’s a life mission, and Mike has taught us that.”

—Liesl Groberg


All photos by Julie Wiatt