Zebra Misc

Six (or maybe less) Degrees of Separation

The railyard and roundhouse in Alexandria, now the location of the U.S. Patent and Trademark office. (Alexandria archives)

Alexandria, VA – There are those among us who love the brush with greatness. The whiff of celebrity can be intoxicating for some people; that excitement that ignites a giddy sensation, generates a wide smile on one’s face, a knowing look, or even a gasp or a scream. Witness the Beatles.

Even if we don’t experience that brush with greatness ourselves, we have the potential to encounter the “six degrees of separation” if we take the time to research the links. The six degrees of separation comes from Hungarian author, playwright, poet, journalist, and translator Frigyes Karinthy, who was the first to popularize the concept in his 1929 short story “Chains.” The friend-of-a-friend concept was also popularized in the 1990 play by John Guare, Six Degrees of Separation.

The concept essentially says we are all related to nearly everyone else by six degrees. There will be the academic purists out there who will doubtlessly take issue with my simple-minded description of the phenomenon, but it goes something like this: You start researching a chain of relations and by the sixth connection, you will have a connection with a celebrity, royalty, or other notable or notorious individual.

Alexandrians sipping a libation at Landini’s have bumped into many a celebrity over the years. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a political denizen of D.C. or a movie idol on break from shooting a DMV-based film. Often appearing under the radar are Alexandrians who, by birth, career, familial relocations, or by pure happenstance, have achieved greatness and may be sitting on the next bar stool. To what degree separates you from these luminaries?

Maybe not all of us, but some, I’m sure, harbor a secret desire to find they are related to George Washington or any number of Virginia’s Founding Fathers. How about that strange feeling you get when you learn that your father was a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-who-knew-a-guy-who-was-fourth-cousin-to-a-lady-who-was-Martha-Washington’s-cook’s-great-grandson? You might not hit it off with the Gucci-clad blond at the bar with this line, but it would make an avocational historian swoon.

The A-listers of current or former Alexandrians is a Who’s-Who of American entrepreneurs, politicians, educators, inventors, society, entertainers, sports figures, and activists. This is where the six degrees kicks into high gear.

Now, I’m not going to do a complete rundown because, as I mentioned above, it is a pretty exhaustive list, and my editor would have a seizure. (Editor’s note: Agreed.) Besides, it’s been done before. But I will take you on a quick excursion to introduce those new to the area to some names you’ll recognize. For others, this will serve as a refresher course on why you’re justifiably proud to be here in Alexandria.

George Washington. Just like over 225 years ago, he’s simply everywhere. Having done everything there was to do back then—surveying, fighting battles, forming alliances, running the country, knocking back large vats of Madeira and distilling whiskey, dancing, hunting foxes (the animal, not Sally Fairfax)—and since he had no natural-born heirs, we could all be related to him but only tangentially through Martha’s heirs.

Jim Morrison on the wall of St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub.

But enough about George and his revolutionary posse. If you are a certain age (and I mean in the neighborhood of your mid-late 70s), you’ll love that Jim Morrison of The Doors went to George Washington High School,[1] Class of 1961.[2] Add the fact that Cass Elliot, born Ellen Naomi Cohen, also attended G.W. High School, as did her Mamas and Papas bandmate John Phillips (although he graduated in 1953), and you might see a musical trend forming.

Actress and writer Casey Wilson was born and raised in Alexandria and graduated from T. C. Williams High School (now Alexandria City High School) in 1998. Her career includes two seasons as a regular cast member on Saturday Night Live, starring in comedy TV shows, and appearing in some 30 films such as Julie & Julia and Gone Girl.

Fans of Law & Order: SVU will be pleased that Christopher Meloni attended St. Stephen’s School (now St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School). In 2007, Meloni was inducted into the St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes Athletic Hall of Fame for playing quarterback on their undefeated 1978 football team. He is also known for starring opposite Julia Roberts in Runaway Bride. Another Law & Order: SVU notable is Diane Neal, who portrayed New York Assistant District Attorney Casey Novak from 2003 to 2012. She was also born in Alexandria.

NBC’s Today Show host, journalist, and author Hoda Kotb graduated from Fort Hunt High School, where she was elected homecoming queen. Her mother still lives in Old Town. And as many of us know, the late Willard Scott, also a former Today Show host for over three decades, was an Alexandria native born in 1934. He was best known to locals for seeing him as Bozo the Clown and later as Ronald McDonald. Sadly, we lost his wonderful smile and antics when he passed away in 2021.

Politicians abound here, and several had close ties to the city. Richard Nixon lived in ParkFairfax as a young Congressman. Gerald Ford established roots here during his time as a Member of Congress, up to the very morning he was inaugurated as the 38th President of the U.S.

A young John McCain at Episcopal High School and meeting President Nixon in 1973. (Photo: Episcopal High School) (Photo: U.S. Navy).

One of the best-known Senators with local ties is the late Senator John S. McCain III. McCain lived here twice during his storied career, once in the 1970s when he was assigned to the Navy Staff at the Pentagon. But the earlier association with Alexandria was his formative years while attending Episcopal High School. While he didn’t exactly set the world on fire academically, his reputation for bucking the rules, uncanny ability to find a good time, and the dangerously-close-to-expulsion demerits he amassed earned him the monikers “Punk” and “McNasty.” He did love English and History, however, and did well in both. In his book Faith of My Fathers, he wrote that among the greatest influences on his future at EHS was one of his Masters, Mr. Wiliam B. Ravenel.

McCain’s description sets Ravenel something akin to a Mr. Chips. He was the main force in McCain’s appreciation of Shakespeare and Somerset Maugham. Throughout McCain’s seven-year imprisonment in Hanoi, he thought that next to his father, Ravenel was the person McCain most wanted to see after his release as a POW in Vietnam. Sadly, Ravenel died two years before McCain’s release, so it was a wish not granted.

All these notables aside, however, if one digs deep enough, we may stumble upon another lion of Alexandria. It’s old Eli H. Janney, who was born in Loudon County and settled in Alexandria. Janney achieved the rank of major for the Confederacy and served on General Robert E. Lee’s staff.

Eli Janney’s grave at Ivy Hill Cemetery. (Photo: Marcus Fisk)

Alexandria was a major Virginia railroad hub during the war. Janney most likely saw many men injured in railroad accidents and the dangerous operations of coupling railroad cars. After the Civil War, he was a dry goods clerk in town who didn’t let moss grow under his feet. He was often seen whittling during his lunch hours. He whittled a concept out of a block of wood to invent a knuckle link and pin coupler for railroad cars.

Janney filed a patent for his “Improvement in Car-Couplings” idea and was awarded U.S. Patent 138,405 on April 29, 1873. Knuckle-style couplers are still in use on railroads today. Janney’s coupler and the Westinghouse air brake are regarded in the railroad industry as the two most significant safety inventions for railroads in the last half of the 19th century.[3]

Unfortunately, Janney sold the patent rights two years later for $300 to a company that manufactured parts for the Pennsylvania Railroad. He never earned another cent for his invention, although I’m sure he was glad to see the railroads succeed and injuries decrease.

He died in Alexandria on June 16, 1912, and was buried in Ivy Hill Cemetery. If you drive down or live on Janney’s Lane, at least now you’ll know why Alexandria named a street for him.

You might want to check to see how many degrees separate you from old Eli. You might be surprised.


[1] Today it is George Washington Middle School, if you want to stroll by.

[2] My several degrees of separation from Morrison? Now I live in France and he is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

[3] For more information see the Eli Janney on Youtube — www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2gezL_z3Ow

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