Inevitably, eyebrows popped when the mayor became the high school athletic director. Something about going from building a city to ordering field hockey sticks didn't add up.
Kerry Donley's move this year from mayor of Alexandria and chairman of Virginia's Democratic Party to running the sports program at T.C. Williams High School would have seemed odd anywhere, but especially in Alexandria, where almost anything the school system does now is seen through the filter of the School Board's decision to elevate personal loyalties over moral obligations.
A year and a half after the drunken driving arrest and guilty plea of Superintendent Rebecca Perry -- and the School Board's subsequent decision to give her a raise, extend her contract and excuse her from a pledge to talk to local groups about the dangers of drinking and driving -- many parents, teachers and even some board members view Alexandria schools as a system interested primarily in protecting those at the top.
So when Perry and the board hired Donley, a 49-year-old banker and rising political star, School Board member Charles Wilson was far from alone in wondering if Donley was coming on board "for political reasons." Was Donley, whose mayoral term ended in 2003, hired to provide political cover for Perry, some wondered? Was he there to defend the schools against budget cuts? Why would Donley take a hefty pay cut -- his new post pays $92,545 -- for a job for which his only training was coaching his daughter's soccer team?
I found Donley by walking past banks of lockers and into a humid office redolent of gym rats. The former mayor, whose political career always got an extra lift from his silver-screen looks, was dressed a couple of cuts above your average AD. The way Donley tells it, he came to T.C. not because of cronyism but as part of a good old midlife crisis.
"What got to me was the grind of local government," he says. "You're going from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. six, seven days a week. You miss seeing your family and watching your kids grow up."
Donley still works long hours, but going to volleyball games isn't the same kind of pressure as fielding calls from taxpayers riled up about police protection, potholes or parking.
Sure, he has to juggle practice fields and times, and he has had to turn to colleagues for tutorials on sports he'd never paid much attention to. But at the end of the day, no one calls to berate him because the trash wasn't picked up.
"You're working for a principal and a superintendent instead of having the city manager and everybody else working for me," Donley says, and his entire torso relaxes. "And working with kids makes you feel young."
Some people who watched Donley's transition got it right away. He explains: "You see more and more people my age saying, 'Hey, I want something else, something more.' It's not always about the money." He tells of an engineer on the Wilson Bridge project who quit to become a math teacher, and of young people turning away from law school to spend time teaching in public schools.
But others still pepper Donley with questions: "Why did you do this? Do you really like it? Which is worse, being mayor or AD?"
The answer, he says, "always comes back to the grind. You can only keep that pace for so long."
In politics, the battles never end. "You're usually addressing the same issue over and over," he says. Whereas in sports, you win or you don't. Though there's always next season.
As much as Donley loves the Titans, some future season will feature his return to a more familiar field of play. "I miss the excitement of campaigns and the strategizing. I do make a few calls every once in a while."
It doesn't take much prodding to get him to talk Virginia politics. He launches into an extended riff on whether this month's elections are a sign of a realignment of state politics (only if similar results follow in the next two years), and whether Democrats are painting an urban crescent of blue from Arlington through Richmond and on to the Tidewater in what had been assumed to be a red state.
When he's done, he volunteers that "I'd like to run for office again."
That's the thing about midlife crises. One day, you wake up and that cherry-red sports car looks ridiculous.