When the panel of seven judges asked Bill North-Rudin why he wanted to be Alexandria's town crier, he blurted out: "Because I'm a ham!"
Minutes later, he won the job.
During an hour-long "cry-off" between five candidates, North-Rudin impressed the judges with his two-minute monologue -- in which he paid homage to the "lord high mayor" and described himself as a "humble supplicant" -- and with his rapier-sharp wit and animated ringing of the crier's trademark bell.
"There was a warmth and an exuberance and an easygoing spontaneity" about North-Rudin, said Philip C. Brooks, a member of the Alexandria Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission and one of the judges.
Brooks, who also helped to select North-Rudin's predecessor, said the competition was exceptionally close, a sentiment echoed by several other judges.
"Any one of the candidates would have done a great job . . . but he seemed to have a more complete feel for the role than the others," Brooks said.
North-Rudin, 47, was flabbergasted to have been chosen. The field included four men and one woman, all with a flair for the dramatic.
North-Rudin had sized up the competition -- which included a seasoned historical reenactor and a man with a resonant baritone -- and questioned his chances of being picked. He's never had qualms about public speaking, but his most recent dramatic experience was acting in high school plays.
He has been known to use his sense of humor to "tweak" those around him. As his younger brother said, "I always knew your big mouth would get you somewhere."
The town crier's duties include introducing city officials at events, leading parades and taking on other ceremonial tasks of his choosing. He must be available to make proclamations and pronouncements at a moment's notice. In his official uniform -- a flowing white poet's shirt, a blue vest and tight-fitting black breeches with buttons below the knees (complete with concealed straps to hold up his stockings) -- North-Rudin made his debut at the Friendship Firehouse Festival last month. William, as he prefers to be called in his formal capacity, rode his bicycle to the event, a tricorn hat perched on his head and a homemade scroll emblazoned with a golden letter A for Alexandria tucked in a rucksack on his side.
His first performance went as planned. He mingled with the revelers and posed with children for pictures. At the beginning of the ceremony, he started ringing his bell and strode to the front of the crowd, calling out "Hear ye! Hear ye!"
Town criers have long been a dwindling breed, but the number of criers is actually rising in the United States, according to Redmond O'Colonies, president of the American Guild of Town Criers, founded in Philadelphia and now based in Martinez, Calif."We were the original media and ambassadors of goodwill for our respective communities," O'Colonies said.
He said his group has 32 members but he often hears of more criers across the country. He estimated that there are about 400 "brothers and sisters of the bell" around the world -- some, he noted, with more than ceremonial duties. In some parts of Africa, for example, some criers spread the word about HIV, and others tell the news in towns that lack modern communication systems, he said. O'Colonies, who is the town crier for Martinez, Calif., and Contra Costa County, believes Alexandria is the only Virginia community with a town crier.
The position of town crier in Alexandria is thought to date to at least the 1790s, when the crier served a crucial role in warning residents about fires or in the celebration of important holidays.
City archaeologist Pam Cressy recently examined documents referring to a freed slave, Peter Logan, who served as town crier in the 1830s. On one occasion, Logan walked all over town calling out a report of a missing child -- what Cressy referred to as the Amber Alert of the time. The youngster was found, she said.
By the 1860s, the role had substantially diminished. It is now primarily ceremonial, though it is still important as a reminder of a tradition that binds the community.
"It gives you a sense Alexandria is still a small port town on the Potomac," Cressy said. "For a moment, you can forget we're wireless on town square."
North-Rudin was born and raised in upstate New York and moved to the District to attend George Washington University, where he graduated with a degree in political science. He later lived briefly in Arlington. He married Patti, his college sweetheart, and moved to Alexandria 25 years ago -- or, as he prefers in crier mode, "score and five."
In past years, Alexandria's town criers -- and even those auditioning for the job -- were required to provide their own wardrobe. But when it comes to 18th-century attire, "Who's going to have that in their closet?" said Jean Taylor Federico, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria.
This time, the city supplied the attire for contestants who requested it; private donations will pay for two custom-made outfits for North-Rudin. His selection for the lifetime appointment represents a departure from his two immediate predecessors, John I. Yagerline and Francis Taylor Slate, who were considerably older. (Yagerline, 75, died in April; Slate served in the position for 20 years, until his death in 1998).
North-Rudin is executive director of the Alexandria Volunteer Bureau, a private nonprofit organization that serves as a clearinghouse for volunteer opportunities. He said he puts in about 60 hours a week at work.
He views the unpaid town crier job as the perfect way to promote historic Alexandria and volunteerism. He volunteers as a tutor during the school year, tends a family vegetable garden, takes Spanish classes and is working toward a master's degree in education at Marymount University. He hopes to teach third or fourth grade.
"Everybody's got work and commuting and family, but everybody's got one hour per week," he said. "It's going to give me entree into a lot of new places I haven't previously been to promote volunteerism."
The Volunteer Bureau matches more than 2,000 people a year, mostly in Alexandria, with groups and agencies.
"All those who welcome service to others as a healing balm," he worked into his cry at the Firehouse Festival, "are urged to go hither: www.alexandriavolunteers.com."
The town crier is expected to appear at annual events such as the city's birthday in July and the George Washington birthday celebration. North-Rudin is also scheduled to attend the opening of the City Council after its summer recess and the city's holiday tree lighting. And he's been fielding requests from community groups.
He said he will serve as the town crier for all of Alexandria, not just Old Town.
"I am going to make every effort to make sure no area of the city feels snubbed," he said, adding that he expects to cry several times a month.
One place North-Rudin is certain to be crying in the near future is St. Elmo's Coffee Pub, a town center of sorts for Del Ray artists and others. He stops in at least three times a day to refuel on coffee, making him a familiar face to owner Nora Partlow.
"He talks with everybody," said Partlow, chuckling at the thought that her longtime customer will have a wider forum for his jokes. "That's the kind of person you want to be a town crier -- someone who will be able to get the news out."