John Kelly's Washington

Bill Treanor, longtime advocate for kids in D.C., retires

Bill Treanor co-founded the Youth Today newspaper and served on the school board.
Bill Treanor co-founded the Youth Today newspaper and served on the school board. (John Kelly/washington Post)

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By John Kelly
Thursday, April 8, 2010

"This is my favorite photograph," Bill Treanor told me, picking up a framed black-and-white print. It showed several District police officers, one of whom was gripping a young man in a chokehold. The picture was taken in the early 1970s at a protest against the planned Three Sisters Bridge over the Potomac. The young man was Bill Treanor.

"I think it was a cop who took it," said Bill, 67. The photo showed up in the mail one day in a plain brown envelope. No hard feelings, I guess.

For 40 years, Bill has been sort of the Zelig of Washington politics: a hippie when Dupont Circle was the epicenter of the counterculture, a Hill staffer, a D.C. school board member and the co-founder of Youth Today, a newspaper that every month since 1992 has been sticking a finger in the eyes of nonprofit groups that purport to help children but don't have much to show for it.

Bill retired last week, which seemed like a good time to sit down and reminisce.

His father was general counsel to the SEC before moving the family to Pelham, N.Y., where Bill grew up -- or tried to. "I was a really difficult kid," he said. It is a measure of just how difficult he was that Bill attended not a boarding school, not a Jesuit school, but a Jesuit boarding school. He dropped out in the 10th grade.

When he was 17, his father suggested he join the Navy. Bill joined the Army instead, serving two years, nine months and 14 days ("Not that I was counting"), earning his general equivalency diploma and then going to Georgetown's foreign service school.

"I flunked out of there, too," he said. "I'm ADHD, as you've probably figured out by now. I could never do assignments."

What he could do was advocacy, and nowhere was he more active than in working with young people. He'd had many advantages in life and yet he'd barely survived his trip through adolescence. What about those from less fortunate families? In the late '60s, he opened a shelter for runaways at 18th and Riggs NW. He ran an alternative school and a group home.

"Bill cared about what was happening with kids, particularly kids on the street, when nobody was really paying a lot of attention," said one of his former students, now lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is reluctant to have his name in the paper. "I was literally living in abandoned houses. When Bill came along, it wasn't like he asked a lot of questions. He just said something has to happen here and I'm going to make it happen."

In 1973, Bill was elected to the school board, the hippy from Ward 2. He served with Marion Barry ("I helped him move into his office," Bill said) in a term that coincided with Schools Superintendent Barbara Sizemore, who was either a visionary or wildly out of touch with reality. She was eventually fired by the board.

"It was a nightmare," said Bill, who is proud of never voting for a budget increase. "They were doing such a poor job of how the money was spent. It was such a waste."

The newspaper he founded -- and which continues under new publisher Sara Fritz -- bites a lot of hands. "Most of the big shots in this field hate me," Bill said. "I mean really hate me."


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