New Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild president Paul Washington remembers well what it was like to grow up at the end of Library Lane in the 1960s and 1970s, when his father Jerry worked at IBM and the town’s mix of old families and struggling artists, arriviste musicians and sophisticated weekenders made his home town a great place to explore on his bike.
“Schneiders drug store was still on the corner where you could get penny candies and Hershey kisses were a half cent a piece,” said the Onteora grad who went on to Yale undergrad, a Fordham law degree, and a smart career in law, banking and governance topped by his current position as Senior Vice President, Deputy General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Time Warner Inc. “We spent a lot of weekends as a family renovating what would become the Woodstock Youth Center, next to what was then still St. Joan of Arc Chapel (and is now the Mescal Hornbeck Community Center). And I did a lot of theater as a child.”
Washington speaks about the similarities between younger years spent in plays and time spent playing sports. Working with Performing Arts of Woodstock’s young people’s theater group of the time, as well as the Woodstock Playhouse’s Joan Gordon Theater for local youth, he learned about the power of ensemble work, while also getting the chance to “try on different personalities.” He worked with his mentor/friend Dick Burlingame, who “knew everyone in town,” mowing lawns and cleaning swimming pools.
“I would bike by this house we’re in as a child and dream of living here,” Washington says while seated on the porch of the gracious 1909 stone home Green Pastures, known for being the residence of artist Zulma Steele (and later, briefly, David Bowie and his wife Iman)… and his main residence since 2011. “I would bike up to Byrdcliffe and was always curious about what it would be like to live in one of those houses, too. It just seemed like a magical community, and the fact that those buildings have continued standing to this day must be magic.”
How did this Woodstock native — who started working in Connecticut politics, shifted to becoming a top aide for lieutenant governor Stan Lundine in Albany, moved on to the Dime Savings Bank during its pioneering days under Harry W. Albright, clerked for supreme court justices William Brennan and David Souter, and then worked at a major New York law firm before his tenure at Time Warner in New York City — move so far and yet never shift his legal residence from his home town?
Realizing he didn’t have the talent to pursue theater beyond his youthful dreams, and noticing how the field had a tendency to become narrowing rather than expansive at a certain level, Paul Washington pursued his other main interests from childhood: politics and the law. He wrote his Yale history thesis on colonial slave law, comparing New York and Virginia legislation in previously unheard of ways that broke long-held beliefs that the northern state must have been more liberal than its southern cousin. He wrote studies on affordable housing for the banking industry and thrilled to see an altruistic sense of governance and policy at play in both the private and public sectors he moved between. While attending law school at night, he watched as national housing policies were pursued, and skewed. And then he saw both worlds he’d worked in grow hyper-partisan, on the public side, and less altruistic, on the private.
“Government became hostile to policy,” he said, watching his dog Jasper search for groundhogs in his fields overshadowed by Overlook to the West. “On the business side, the money shifted to the top of the house.”
Washington stayed grounded by always returning to, and voting from, the home he grew up in on Library Lane. In 2001, he bought a house on Route 375, and then snatched up his current home, which he’s since made as full-time a home as his busy life can sustain. He and his longtime partner Stan are parents to 17-month old Jacob, the first child from a same sex marriage acknowledged in the state of Utah…the same week that the supreme court okayed same sex marriage across the land. They keep a home in Manhattan on the same block where Woodstock’s George Bellows once lived.
“I answered a survey at work once in which I scored high for being inclusive and wanting to be included, both things that have served me well,” Washington added. “I think both qualities come out of having grown up here.”
He came on to the board at the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild a few years back after having stepped down from several years on the Maverick Festival’s board of directors.
“Henry Ford suspected I’d have some time,” he added of the longstanding Guild chairman who left that post this weekend, and combining his position with that of also-retiring Guild president Byron Bell. “I knew how important Byrdcliffe was historically to the town, as well as its importance supporting new artists. It was more stable but still had challenges. I like being part of a group of people who fix things.”
Washington talked about the two dozen other boards he’s served on, or has continued with, from Wilderstein in Rhinebeck and the Albany Symphony Orchestra to the Folk Art Museum in New York, the Society of Corporate Governance, the Legal Aid Society and the Town of Woodstock’s five person ethics board. He is pleased to be taking the helm at the Guild at a time when all the town’s cultural organizations are working together naturally, and showing strong health.
“You know that feeling when you’re throwing a party and go upstairs and just listen to it continuing without you downstairs?” he asked. “That’s a great feeling, to know something is running well without you.”
Off at the end of the field a car pulls into Green Pastures’ driveway and Jasper takes off towards it. Paul Washington takes off, fast, after his dog, catching it before beast met vehicle and introducing himself, inclusively, to those arriving.
As he walked back up the hill an earlier comment about his childhood came back. It was about once spending a 1797 half penny on one of those Hershey Kisses at Schneider’s, on the corner where Tinker Street meets Mill Hill Road. He’d taken the coin from his collection, given him by his father.
Years later, Paul Washington still had that collection. And it was again full, as is all his Woodstock life.