Bill Brown of the Association of Oldest Inhabitants of D.C., holding one end of check, presents $25,000 to the Military Road School Preservation Trust, one of six presented to local history groups. (Bill Rice)
Columnist

It was a little bit like that “Oprah” show, Saturday at the Capitol Skyline hotel in Southwest Washington. Except instead of “You get a car, and you get a car!” it was “And you get a check for $25,000!”

The occasion was the 150th anniversary celebration of the Association of the Oldest Inhabitants of D.C. It’s the city’s oldest civic organization, founded on Dec. 7, 1865. That was a time when its members could have included men who remembered a time before there even was a Washington, D.C.

To mark its birthday, AOI donated money to six groups that work to preserve the city’s history: the Military Road School Preservation Trust, the Friendship Fire Association Museum, the Heurich House Foundation, the Historical Society of Washington’s Kiplinger Research Library, the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, and George Washington University’s Master of Tourism Administration program.

AOI bestowed a total of $150,000: six checks for $25,000.

They were those big checks, and until representatives were called to the front of the room, the groups had no idea they were getting them.

“I’m still in shock,” Theresa Saxton, secretary of the Military Road School Preservation Trust, said Monday.

I wasn’t familiar with the Military Road School, which was founded in 1864 in an Army barracks at Fort Stevens. During the Civil War, African Americans flocked to Washington, many settling near Army forts, feeling they would be safest there. The school’s 1912 building still stands, on what is now Missouri Avenue NW, at 13th Street. It closed in 1954 when the District’s schools were integrated. It now houses a charter school.

Theresa, a former student, said the Military Road School Preservation Trust works to spread the history of the elementary school — at one point the only one for black children in upper Northwest Washington — and also gives out modest college scholarships. The award will help it do both of those things.

AOI has a long connection to the history of firefighting in Washington. For years, it met in an old firehouse at 19th and H streets NW, until the International Monetary Fund gave the organization $50,000 for the building so it could be torn down and the IMF could build its headquarters. That money, well-husbanded, along with a few later bequests allowed AOI to mark its sesquicentennial in such a generous fashion.

The Friendship Fire Association Museum, on New Jersey Avenue NW, contains some items once in AOI’s collection, including four pieces of wheeled apparatus and two bronze fire bells. The association’s Walter Gold (coincidentally the son of Bill Gold, founder of this very column) said the $25,000 may be used to teach District schoolchildren fire safety.

I delivered a few remarks at Saturday’s anniversary luncheon, taking as my inspiration a single page of ads from an 1880 Washington Post. There was a listing for AOI’s annual Washington’s Birthday celebration, along with ads for all manner of patent medicines: tonics and ointments to cure catarrh, consumption, bronchitis, vascular excrescences . . .

There was an ad for a carpet merchant named Julius Lansburgh and one for the Boston Dry Goods House, soon to be renamed after two of its founders: Woodward & Lothrop. And there was an ad for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, housed in a building that we today call the Renwick.

The advertisements were a reminder that our city is overlaid with many stories. Some are, in a sense, over: There is no Woodies anymore, no Lansburgh’s. Some stories, like the Corcoran’s and the Renwick’s, have entered new chapters. Some, like the AOI’s, go on.

Congratulations to the AOI — and to all who help us remember.

The ugly truth

The hideous Christmas sweater has become a commodity, something to be desired and admired, not laughed at or ridiculed. Retailers such as J.C. Penney, Kohl’s and Macy’s actually tout the fact that they sell ugly Christmas sweaters.

Over the weekend, My Lovely Wife was in a Montgomery County thrift shop searching for her own ugly sweater for a party, when she saw a 10-year-old girl shopping with her mother. The mother had pulled from the rack a truly awful sweater: green, encrusted with Santa faces and Christmas trees. Her daughter then pulled out something more demure, cute even: a burgundy turtleneck with a Scandinavian reindeer pattern.

“Oh, honey, that’s not ugly enough,” the mother said. “This is an ugly Christmas sweater party.”

At which point the little girl burst into tears.

She didn’t want to wear an ugly sweater, it seemed. The whole point of wearing a sweater is to wear a nice sweater. What would the other girls at the party say?

The mother wisely put both sweaters in her shopping cart.

It’s easy for grown-ups to forget that children exist in a pre-ironic state, untouched by snark or sarcasm.

Helping Hand

Here’s a question My Lovely Wife asks me every morning: “Have you donated to Helping Hand yet?”

Er . . . well, I just did. I hope you will, too. Community of Hope, Sasha Bruce Youthwork and Homestretch are three charities that work with homeless families and teens in our area. For more information, and to donate, visit posthelpinghand.com.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.