By John Kelly
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Spending time with Paul Warren is like engaging in one of those six degrees of separation exercises, except instead of working his way to Kevin Bacon, Paul relates everything back to Gonzaga, the D.C. Catholic boys high school he graduated from in 1968.
Washington Post journalists who went to Gonzaga? Paul can reel them off. Politicians, sporting figures, titans of industry? Paul keeps track. I'm confident he could name Gonzaga alums involved with the construction of the Panama Canal or the introduction of the infield fly rule.
"Two guys on the plane that went into the Hudson went to Gonzaga," he told me as we lunched recently at a Dupont Circle restaurant called James Hoban's. Paul chose it because it's named after the Irish architect who designed the old Gonzaga building and who sent his son to the school. (Hoban also designed the White House, but I get the feeling that's not as important to Paul.)
Yes, Paul, 57, is a man obsessed. His desire to ferret out every last factoid about Gonzaga led him to produce a book a couple of years ago called "Echo Ever Proudly," in which he and co-writer (and classmate) Michael Dolan gathered every newspaper clipping that mentioned the school between 1821, when it was founded, and 1899. It was while working on that project that Paul got the idea for his new book: "In the Web of History: Gonzaga College and the Lincoln Assassination."
David Herold, one of the men hanged for his involvement in the plot? Went to Gonzaga. Thompson Nailor, the man who owned the stable where John Wilkes Booth boarded his horses? His son went to Gonzaga. Mary Surratt, at whose boarding house the conspirators met? Her sons were taught in southern Maryland by a priest who was president of Gonzaga at the time of the assassination. That priest was the Rev. Bernardin Wiget, who heard Mary Surratt's confession and escorted her to the gallows. On it goes, and that's not even mentioning the wheelbarrow with "Gonzaga" painted on it (more on which later).
You might think Paul would want to play down the school's connections to such an ignoble deed. I mean, it can't be something Gonzaga is proud of.
"You're right, but it's a study of social history of a city," he said. "At the time, Gonzaga was right in the middle of things, as such there were many connections to what was the saddest moment in the city."
In 1865, the school was right around the corner from Ford's Theatre, on F Street NW between Ninth and 10th. And as one of the only schools of its kind in town, many of Washington's elite -- lawyers, judges, businessmen -- were graduates.
Paul, who lives in Chevy Chase, found plenty of less nefarious connections with the school too. The first policeman on the scene of the assassination was a Gonzaga dad. John Frederick May, the doctor who treated a dying Lincoln and identified Booth's corpse, was a Gonzaga grad.
Then there are the curious little tidbits Paul uncovered. For example, Father Wiget, the Jesuit priest who was president of the school, visited Mary Surratt the day after Booth killed Lincoln. He'd heard her confession in the past, and some wonder whether she had told him about the plot that was gestating inside the walls of her house.
As for that wheelbarrow, it was spied behind the Surratt boarding house after the assassination. Father Wiget quietly ordered that it be retrieved. It just wouldn't do to have the school's name associated with the murder of the president.
"[Wiget] was intensely concerned how all this would reflect on Gonzaga and his church," Paul said. There was strong anti-Catholic sentiment afoot in the country at the time, and some saw the assassination as a papist plot.
Paul is chairman and publisher of Warren Communications News, which publishes Communications Daily and other telecommunications trade journals. Said Paul: "Luckily, business is good enough that I can devote the time to this. I'm very blessed." (The self-published book, $25, is available at www.gonzagalincoln.com. Proceeds benefit the school.)
Gonzaga graduates, Paul said, are bound by a common love for the school, some of which no doubt comes from enjoying (or enduring) education under a firm Jesuit hand. His two sons went to Gonzaga. So did his brother Dan.
I asked Paul whether his father went to Gonzaga.
"My father was Jewish," he said. "I think the whole Gonzaga thing baffled him."