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Uncovering the story — and the person — behind a 109-year-old photograph

In 2020, a neighbor gave Josh Calder a bag full of old papers and photographs. Among the random ephemera was a 1912 photo of 9-year-old Donald Wellington Velsey. Josh was able to track down the boy’s 87-year-old son, Don Velsey, who provided this photo of his father when he was a  New York ad man circa 1934.
In 2020, a neighbor gave Josh Calder a bag full of old papers and photographs. Among the random ephemera was a 1912 photo of 9-year-old Donald Wellington Velsey. Josh was able to track down the boy’s 87-year-old son, Don Velsey, who provided this photo of his father when he was a New York ad man circa 1934. (Family photos)
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The boy stares from the photograph with a knowing look. He’s not smiling. He’s not frowning. He’s not smirking. He looks as if he’s coolly appraising the photographer.

It’s an old photo. The 9-year-old boy is clad in a stiff white collar, a floppy bow tie around his neck. We know how old he is because of what’s written on the back: “Feb. 17, 1912. D.W.V. 9th birthday.”

And we know exactly who he is from what’s written next: “Donald Wellington Velsey.”

The picture was in a bag of old newspapers, receipts and photographs that Josh Calder took off the hands of a neighbor in the Chevy Chase neighborhood in D.C. She had no connection to what was inside and may have picked up the ephemera at an antiques store, perhaps to use for collages.

“Little mysteries from the past provoke me, particularly the photos of people who I feel should be remembered,” said Josh, 56.

The papers and photos came into Josh’s life at the beginning of the pandemic. Perusing them was a welcome distraction.

“I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can find some amusement,’ ” he said. “The main thing that pushed me into action was that there was a lot of information on it.”

Equipped with a name — an unusual one at that — and some dates, Josh quickly found information on Donald Wellington Velsey online.

“Then I set it aside for a while,” he said. “I hit a dead end. Recently, I picked it up again. This time I found this person seemed to have a son.”

And that son lived in Washington. Josh made a copy of the photo, put it in an envelope with a letter and mailed it to an address in the Foxhall neighborhood. There, 87-year-old Don Velsey, a retired architect, opened it with astonishment. That was his dad, all right.

“I wasn’t sure where the photograph could have come from,” Don said. “Josh said it was just from a bunch of ephemera someone had given him.”

Don said his father’s family had lived in Washington for only a few years, 1913 to 1915. His father’s father was in sales, moving around the country constantly. Don said he sold player pianos in Washington.

“He would get dressed up as a performer,” Don said. “He really wasn’t. He just turned a little switch under the piano. That was his little shtick.”

His son — the boy in the photo — went into advertising, working in New York City and living on Long Island.

“I guess today we’d say he was one of the Mad Men,” Don said of his father.

This isn’t the first bit of stray family history Josh has reunited with a relative. After glimpsing a photo of a GI playing a guitar scratched with a name and town in a World War II documentary, Josh tracked down descendants in Kentucky. Hey, he told them, your great uncle’s on Netflix!

“The irony to all of this? By profession I am a futurist,” Josh said.

Josh thinks about the future for clients, who want good things to happen while avoiding bad things. Still, the past pulls at him.

“Obviously, we all sort of want to be remembered,” he said. “But it’s a losing battle, isn’t it? It’s hard to be remembered by anyone at all beyond your grandkids. And what does it even mean to be remembered by the universe?

“That’s why I like these photos. The photo may be the only photograph of that person that exists in the universe. And I don’t want to just let it go.”

We are all grains of sand in the vast dunes of time, our pasts blown away and replaced by the future.

“I actually think they’re rather parallel situations,” Josh said. “You can’t know either the past or the future. The further you go out in either direction, the more blurry and fuzzy and uncertain and inaccurate those things become.”

For just a moment, let us focus on Donald Wellington Velsey, 1903-1981. His family lived on Brown Street NW, off 16th Street. He was a Boy Scout, one of the first. He hiked in Rock Creek Park and once saw Woodrow Wilson being driven in an open-topped car.

“My dad said he stood alert on the side on the road and gave the Boy Scout salute and the president saluted him back,” Don said.

He was a standout athlete in school. But he always thought his crowning achievement wasn’t in sports or advertising, but aboard a wooden cabin cruiser when he was in his 60s.

“He and my mother and I took this old Richardson motorboat from Long Island down to Fort Lauderdale on the Intracoastal Waterway,” Don said. “He had never done any long-distance sailing. A thousand miles in a one-engine boat with no experience was pretty outrageous.”

Of course, when that photo was taken, that voyage was in the future. And now it’s in the past — as we all will be some day.

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Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.

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