Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington celebrates 25 years

By John Kelly
Monday, July 5, 2010

On a recent Sunday, nearly all of the past presidents of the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington were arrayed around a window table at Bread and Chocolate on M Street NW, the restaurant where, 25 years ago, the group was formed.

They sat in chronological order, so that there was a clockwise progression from No. 1 (Peggy Wood, the founding president) to No. 13 (current president Jim Heegeman).

It was about 100 degrees outside, and the tour guides must've been thankful they weren't squiring a busload's worth of tourists across the blast furnace that is the World War II Memorial. They love their jobs, these tour guides said, even though it often involves eighth-graders -- eighth grade being the staple of the "step-on tour," where one of Washington's 1,005 registered tour guides steps on a bus and, for roughly $40 an hour, shows visitors around the capital.

Over the years, the guides have seen some interesting things. Such as the lady who, after witnessing the somber ritual that is the changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery's Tomb of the Unknowns, pronounced herself disappointed.

"This was nothing like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace," she muttered.

Or the student who, after touring Mount Vernon and interacting with the costumed, role-playing docents there, was surprised to find Martha Washington's name on the family crypt.

"But I just saw her," the girl said.

The tour guides have heard all sorts of myths about our city, too. You'd be surprised how many people are convinced that the face of Robert E. Lee is carved into the back of Abraham Lincoln's head at the Lincoln Memorial. (I was, anyway.) Or that there's a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence. (Blame Hollywood.) It is the rare Washington tour guide who has not been asked where the cherry tree that George Washington chopped down was. (Answer: Not in Washington. Not anywhere.)

There is no such thing as a stupid question, of course, but there is such a thing as an oddly specific, left-field sort of question. Such as: What kind of tree is that? Or: How much does that statue weigh? Or: What is the name of the horse under the statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square?

That last query is the type that tour guides spend their evenings researching in the hope they can deliver an answer when they meet up with the group again the next day. (Or not answer. Jackson had several horses. Sculptor Clark Mills never said which one modeled.)

Washington belongs to the country -- to the world -- and, the tour guides said, every group of visitors likes to hear about its connection to the capital. People from Norway enjoy hearing that the black granite underneath the big Einstein statue outside the National Academy of Sciences came from their country.

"And Ohio," one tour guide exclaimed. "There's so much to say about Ohio."

Unfortunately, I seem not to have written any of it down.

But really, I said as I finished my French toast, do we even need tour guides any more? Can't tourists just download podcasts or print out information from the Internet?

The tour guides looked at me sadly. A good tour guide is more like an actor than a robot, they said. A good tour guide picks up the unspoken clues that come from her group, whether it's composed of rambunctious 13-year-olds or foreign dignitaries. She tailors her presentation to the group at hand, educating when that's called for, entertaining when that's what's needed, plucking information from the recesses of her brain.

And on a hot day, she knows where the shady spots are.

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