Mocha-brown furniture, stacks of paperwork, and mementos from a career stretching a quarter-century, Steven Monfort’s office is not unlike any other home away from home for a senior government worker who has reached the occupational heights he has. Still, Monfort, PhD Environmental Science and Public Policy ’93, has something that sets his workspace apart—herds of some of the most endangered animals in the world.
Monfort is director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), a 3,200-acre verdant outpost in Front Royal, Virginia, where scientists are pooling their mental might to find ways to preserve and expand species on the brink of extinction.
At any given time, the facility, which is off limits to the public, is abuzz with dozens of scientists and students studying and caring for as many as 40 different species, including red pandas, red-crowned and white-naped cranes, and maned wolves to name a few. Though numbers fluctuate, typically several hundred animals call SCBI’s pastures and barns home.
“We’re not like a typical zoo,” Monfort points out. There are no cages, cotton candy stands, or tour buses at SCBI. “Most zoos have a Noah’s ark paradigm, where they have two of everything. That is great for the public to be exposed to a variety of different species—sort of the wonders of biodiversity—but it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to do science on animals when you have really small numbers of them.”
He adds, “Science and discovery really underpin everything we do here.”
An administrator, veterinarian, and one of the Smithsonian’s point men in the world of biological preservation, Monfort is one of the first people to graduate from Mason with a doctoral degree geared toward zoo administration. Since then, he estimates, another two dozen have followed in his footsteps at Mason.
While at Mason, Monfort, who was the College of Science’s 2010 Distinguished Alumnus of the Year, was already fully ensconced in the world of animal science. He began working for the Smithsonian in 1986, where he rose through the ranks as a veterinarian and scientist, spearheading research into animal hormones and reproduction and heading up many of the National Zoo’s conservation efforts. In 2006, he became the zoo’s associate director for conservation and science. Four years later, he was named director of SCBI.
Among his achievements at SCBI was his work with officials at Mason to create the Smithsonian-Mason Semester in Conservation Studies program, where students spend a semester at the institute studying biological conservation.
“I ask them what they want to do and most say, ‘I want to make a difference,’ or ‘I want my life to have a meaning,’” he says of the students, adding that “what we try to do is immerse them in this living laboratory.”
As director, Monfort spends most of his time poring over budgets and signing off on the documents that keep SCBI running. When not in the office, he’s likely at the zoo in Washington, D.C., or on the road, speaking on behalf of the Smithsonian on efforts to conserve biological diversity.
One of the recent initiatives he was instrumental in was the creation of the Global Tiger Initiative, a joint effort with the World Bank to bring nations together to save the world’s tiger population. He’s also been a catalyst in the establishment of numerous other conservation initiatives, including the Sahara Conservation Fund, Conservation Centers for Species Survival, and the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation Project.
“We are fighting the good fight here,” he says.
After 25 years with the Smithsonian, including a brief stint as acting director of the entire National Zoo system in 2009, Monfort says he still gets the urge sometimes to pinch himself at how lucky he is to get to do what he does: save species.
“For me, this is a dream come true.”
There was a time–a mere blink of Father Time’s eye–that Loudoun could lay claim to being home to royalty. No, not the kind of potentate who required gilded carriages and wistful gals with palm leaf fans at the ready. This was monarchy of song. The leader of style. The purveyor of albums. So, who was this mysterious lad whose voice could send damsels into tears? Why, the King of Pop himself: Michael Jackson.
For nine days in 2004, Jackson, along with his three children and army of handlers, ate, bathed and slept in the Leesburg-area home of Del and Robin Walters. This was the same year Jackson was indicted on child molestation charges.
“I realized for the first time that Michael Jackson was more than a singer,” said Del Walters, a former anchor for Channel 7 news. “It was like having the entire corporate staff from IBM in your house.”
So, how did the recently deceased one-gloved wonder wind up in the Walters’ home? Simple happenstance.
According to the couple, Jackson’s representatives were in the area in advance of their boss flying in to accept an award from the African Ambassadors Wives Association at the Ethiopian embassy. While at a Safeway store, they caught sight of the then-latest edition of Washingtonian magazine, which featured a photo of the Walters family in front of their home. The article was about “Great Places to Live.”
Liking what they saw and read, the representatives contacted a friend and real estate agent for the family, who alerted Del Walters of Jackson’s desire to rent their home.
“We thought–like most people would–that our friend had lost her mind,” he said.
But soon enough a meeting was arranged with Jackson’s people, who often referred to the pop star as “the Client,” the couple said.
At the meeting, “I just sat there dumbfounded,” said Robin Walters. “You have to know that I was one of those girls who wanted to marry Michael Jackson.”
After discussing Jackson’s request with their reverend and deciding to keep Jackson’s visit a secret in order to avoid a media circus, the couple agreed to turn over their home to Jackson and his entourage.
All told, 14 people–including a nanny, personal chef and bodyguards–moved in to the Walters’ home, as the couple and their two daughters, Taylor and McClaine, moved out to a nearby hotel. They would not reveal how much Jackson paid to rent their house. “We were compensated,” Del Walters said.
While at the home, the couple said Jackson had the windows covered and sealed with tape. Also, when he did venture out to visit area businesses, including a bookstore in Chantilly, his people had the proprietors sign confidentially agreements stating not to discuss his visit.
The couple also said Jackson and his entourage appeared to have used their theater room and hot tub on occasion. Also, by the sight of food build-up on the stovetop, the Walters deduced that the group must have stayed in and cooked often.
Near the end of Jackson’s stay, the pop star hosted a reception for the family at their home, where Jackson signed autographs and gazed at the couple’s assortment of family photos and mementos.
“We just walked around the house talking about our photos,” Robin Walters said. “He said he was very comfortable in our home.”
Also during the reception, Robin Walters said Jackson was very kind and nurturing to his three children, and hugged everyone he greeted.
Like other fans, Robin Walters said she was shocked by the superstar’s sudden death. She said the news saddened her even more, knowing Jackson called her family’s house home for nine days.
“He was a gentle giant,” she said. “My first reaction to his death was, ‘I can’t believe this man is leaving me.’ He stayed in my house. I’m floored to have known him.”
Charles Ashe was speaking, searching, grabbing and pointing through the frail clippings and yellowed photos of his 92 years on earth. His pace of storytelling would send the heads spinning of men half his age.
“Now what are you looking for?” demanded his wife, Elma, 75. Ashe’s long fingers were reaching for another picture frame. “He always does this to me.”
She was pushing her husband to keep telling, keep explaining. “Has he told you about the money.” “Tell ‘em about your grandfather the healer.” “Tell ‘em about the hanging.”
Ashe, who was talkative up to this point, sat silent and stiff in a chair in his Leesburg home, looking past those in front of him, his thin legs swimming in baggy green corduroys.
His silence could mean he is simply leafing through the files in his head, looking for the memory. Or, is his voice caught in the revisited image of being 3 and witnessing a black man dragged to a tree?
“You OK?” Elma asked.
The question jostled Ashe. After a few seconds, he finally opened up, if only briefly.
It was a lifetime ago, so details are fuzzy. But it was 1917, maybe, and Ashe remembers the crowd carrying the helpless man past his family’s home near King Street and up to the all-white, and now closed, Leesburg High School.
“I can remember the dogs. The hounds running around him,” Ashe talked on, then apologizing he didn’t have more details to give.
He didn’t know the man, nor could he recall his name. His mother did, though, he said. But she’s since died. So are Ashe’s two sisters and two brothers.
In a chronology of local African-American history, the Friends of Thomas Balch Library’s Black History Committee cites three lynchings of blacks occurring in Leesburg’s history, including the one Ashe witnessed. No name listed, though.
“Tell my mother I didn’t do it,” Ashe said the man cried out above the crowd gathered on school grounds before the hanging. “I can hear him now.”
The sights and sounds sent the young Ashe running for the safety of home.
Home now for Ashe and his wife is a two-story house on the south side of town. The structure, green and faded red, is on a hill overlooking a field of broken cars owned by Don’s Automotive. The couple built the house in 1979 on property in Ashe’s family since before he was born.
Elma is Ashe’s third wife. The two met in the early 1970s over a game of pinochle.
For Ashe, besides the lynching, there have been other brushes with history.
As a young man, he once ran a 4.28-minute mile. He has a newspaper clipping to prove it. In 1933, he marched in President Franklin Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in Washington, where Ashe lived much of his life. He has a clipping to prove it. He also met baseball great Ted Williams and Washington Redskins coaching legend George Allen. He has a signed baseball and football to prove each encounter.
Ashe also eavesdropped on history. In 1941, when Japanese warplanes began laying waste to American ships docked in Pearl Harbor, Ashe was working as an engineer in an apartment for military officers on Virginia Avenue in the District. He was manning the telephone switchboard that day when news of the attack broke.
He heard: “They just bombed Pearl Harbor. … You better get your ass down here.”
A year later, Ashe was drafted into the Navy.
Ashe was prepared to talk about these stories. His visual aides, clippings and scrapbook were out and at the ready in a dimly lit room off his garage.
But on the lynching, Ashe appeared caught off guard when Elma brought it up.
In a follow-up conversation over the phone, he again talked of the dogs, the cries of the man, and his own fears from that day.
“My mother never did tell me what he did,” he added, his voice never changing.
Before hanging up, he apologized once more. This time, though not necessary, he went as far as to offer an explanation for his lapses in details.
Simply, there were no clippings for Ashe to turn to, only a fuzzy recollection from a lifetime ago.
“I was only 3,” he said plainly about the hanging. “I’m sorry I can’t tell you more.”