In many ways, 96-year-old Harold C. Vedeler is the quintessential 20th-century Washingtonian. Like other longtime residents born at the dawn of the century, he grew up in a rural setting, joined the influx of workers pouring into Washington during World War II, stayed on as a federal government employee and then, in the 1960s, moved his family to the suburbs.
A 37-year resident of Alexandria who retired in 1965 as head of the Office of Eastern European Affairs in the State Department, Vedeler's century-spanning life has produced vivid memories.
He recalls walking to the one-room schoolhouse in the Midwestern town where he grew up, taking buses in the depths of the Depression from town to town to teach history, traveling to Europe in the 1930s and '40s and getting chilling glimpses of Nazi leaders, moving to fast-growing Washington to help with the war effort, sitting at his desk facing the White House in what is now the Old Executive Office Building and hearing the news that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died, being tailed as he traveled through Vienna and Prague at the height of the Cold War, and moving in the 1960s to Alexandria, where he now lives.
The story of Vedeler's life, says his wife, Charlotte, in a booklet she published about him, "typifies the American story."
Sitting in the living room of the Old Town Alexandria apartment he and Charlotte moved into last year after selling their house, Vedeler recalls growing up in the small Iowa town of Nashua with his grandparents and mother.
His father, a doctor, died of tuberculosis when Vedeler was 3, and his mother worked as a nurse while Vedeler was growing up.
After a few false starts at college, Vedeler fell in love with history and went to Europe in 1932 for a year's study for his doctoral dissertation.
Arriving in Germany in the summer of 1932, he had a front-row seat on the growing power of Adolf Hitler and Nazism.
With another student, Vedeler attended political meetings--of Hitler's Nazi party, the German Social Democrats and the Communists--in the restive country as it struggled to pay its crushing World War I reparations.
At one political rally, the Nazi party leader came within a few feet of the young American history student.
Hitler "was quite dramatic," Vedeler recalls. "He was a performer, dramatic in his gestures."
Vedeler says he was alarmed by the reaction from the crowd. "They were held spellbound. He told them what they wanted to hear--that there was a way that he felt was better for Germany and a way for them to rise from their problems."
After returning home in 1933, Vedeler became yet another casualty of the Great Depression, then gripping the country. Unable to find a professorship in history, he became a "circuit rider," traveling among three towns in Wisconsin, giving night classes in modern history and English history.
After finally landing a job as a history professor at a branch of the University of Idaho, Vedeler remained there for seven years. There, he met Marguerite Drew, the dashing dean of women at the school and one of the first women in the country to get a pilot's license. After they married, Vedeler taught modern European history and German history at the University of Wisconsin and then the University of Nebraska.
Vedeler fully expected to spend the rest of his life ensconced in academia as a historian, but all that changed in 1943 when he was summoned to Washington.
There, with other academics, Vedeler analyzed problems that would be confronted if there were a peace settlement with Germany and recommended policies to avert them.
After Germany's surrender, Vedeler found himself in Nuremberg interrogating members of the defeated Third Reich. The most memorable of the ones he interviewed, he says, was Hermann Goering, the infamous commander of the Nazi Luftwaffe.
"He came in [to the interrogation room] with this big cape, and he unfurled this cape with great flair when he sat down," Vedeler recalls. "We talked to him for several hours . . . and all the time I'm interrogating him, I thought to myself, 'What a shame this man was involved in the Third Reich. If he'd been in a democracy, he'd have been an outstanding politician.' He had a very pleasing personality if you could forget the evil side of him."
After that trip, Vedeler decided that government life was preferable to the more staid rhythms of academia. He and Marguerite settled into a house in the District near Rock Creek Park, and he went to work each day at the headquarters of the State Department, now the Old Executive Office Building, where he worked on issues involving Central Europe--then Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. In the 1950s, he joined the Foreign Service, and the Vedelers moved to Prague, then to Vienna.
The secret police were a constant annoyance, Vedeler says. To this day, he dislikes the sight of leather jackets, because that's what the Czech security people wore. At times, he was followed day and night--even when he toured an exhibit of French drawings.
"As I looked at each picture, I had this shadow behind me," Vedeler says. "Every time I stopped, he stopped. It was incredible."
In 1959, the Vedelers returned to Washington. In 1962, they bought a house in Old Town Alexandria.
Vedeler's taste for history remained strong. He spent 14 years researching and writing a book on modern Europe, while Marguerite indulged her love of poetry. There were no children, says Vedeler--"not because we didn't want them."
The couple also became active in the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Old Town, a church dating to the 18th century. For years, Vedeler walked from his house to the church and posted the hymn numbers on the hymn boards for the service.
In the early 1980s, Marguerite fell ill with both Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, and she died in 1988.
Vedeler remarried the next year to Charlotte Brady, the nurse who had cared for Marguerite in the last few years of her life.
A year ago, they moved to an apartment on Prince Street in Old Town, where it's easier for Vedeler to get around. He was active in planning Old Presbyterian Meeting House's 200th anniversary reenactment yesterday of one of the memorial services commemorating George Washington's death.
The former president died at Mount Vernon on Dec. 14, 1799, and was buried four days later. Old Presbyterian Meeting House was the site of three memorial services on Dec. 29, 1799.
"I love Alexandria," Vedeler says. "I love the old buildings here because of the individuality of each, the historical character of many. . . . There is a distinction . . . not a lot of uniformity among the old buildings."
During walks in the neighborhood, "I may see something new I hadn't noticed before, and that's the charm of the place, the charm of these old buildings."
CAPTION: Alexandrian Harold C. Vedeler, an active member of the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, was a student in Germany as Adolf Hitler was gaining power.