John Kelly's Washington

Student's JFK mural from 1960s hangs in rebuilt Arlington, Va., high school

Artist Jon Friedman with the JFK commemorative mural he created as a student at Arlington's Washington-Lee High School.
Artist Jon Friedman with the JFK commemorative mural he created as a student at Arlington's Washington-Lee High School. (John Kelly/the Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Wednesday, May 12, 2010

If you were over the age of 5

at the time, you probably remember Nov. 22, 1963.

Jon Friedman does.

He was a junior sitting in French class at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington when an announcement came over the public address system that the president had been shot in Dallas and taken to the hospital. Terrible news, but not so terrible that class couldn't go on.

"About half an hour later, the PA broke in again and said the president had been pronounced dead," Jon remembered. "The color from my French teacher's face just drained. It went ashen. Everyone sat in stunned silence. They put Walter Cronkite on over the PA, and we listened to the live feed of the news until the bell rang. . . . I wandered home in a daze."

Jon was an artist -- precociously talented even before he started taking art lessons at the I Street NW home of the famed Mrs. Yuditsky -- and he had an artist's reaction to John F. Kennedy's assassination. Over the next year, he filled a sketchbook with images of the slain president.

Roy Anderson, Jon's art teacher at Washington-Lee, urged him to turn those sketches into a painting, which is how a 4-by-21-foot celebration of JFK's life took its place among the school's more mundane murals of mascots and football players.

High school murals are ephemeral things. Typically painted directly on the walls, they do not often survive renovation. Not for them the painstaking work that goes into saving Roman mosaics or Renaissance frescoes. The Washington-Lee that Jon graduated from in 1965 was torn down and new buildings erected in its place. The new school building opened last July.

That might have been the end of his mural, if not for the fact that he'd created it on stiff, textured paper. When the old building was about to be demolished, the painting was taken down and stored away. After being restored by Doug McKay and reframed by Jimmy Hakimi, it was rededicated Tuesday night in the Alumni Room of the new Washington-Lee.

Jon is 62 now and a successful artist, with studios in New York City and on Cape Cod. Tuesday afternoon, he looked at the 46-year-old ink, paint and Magic Marker mural with a critic's eye. "The left-hand panel looks pretty good," he said. "That head down there is awful."

Who among us might not cringe at what we created as 17-year-olds? But Jon was pleasantly surprised at the artistry and astonished that it had survived at all. "It seems to have held up remarkably well," he said. "I don't think Magic Marker is a particularly archival material. . . . It's too bad that so much history gets lost when schools get torn down and rebuilt."

Gimme an 'H'

Agnes Miller called me the other day. She graduated from Miner Teachers College in 1945, taught fifth and sixth grade for years in Southeast Washington, and is now retired and living in Glenarden.

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